Why Do People Assume Everyone With Hearing Loss Can Sign?

We would love for you to make videos to reach a hearing loss audience, the media rep suggested. “Sure, that sounds good,” I replied, “assuming the videos would be captioned, of course.” “But wouldn’t you just sign in them?” she asked with some confusion.

I stopped dead in my tracks in surprise. “Most people with hearing loss, myself included, don’t know sign language,” I explained, “particularly if we acquired our hearing issues later in life.” “I didn’t know that,” she said.

This was an intelligent, educated person working in media for a patient advocacy company. If she doesn’t know this basic fact about people with hearing loss, imagine the ignorance of the general public.

Living With Hearing Loss | A Hearing Loss Blog

Sign Language is a Beautiful Language

Sign language is a beautiful language that works well for people in the Deaf community, but as someone who developed hearing loss later in life, it is not a workable option for me, unless I wanted to change almost everything about my life. I prefer to augment my residual hearing with technology to remain firmly in the hearing world.

Even so, I have always been curious about sign language — ever since learning how to finger spell in grade school, well before my hearing issues began. A hearing loss friend and I took several sign language lessons a few years ago. It was fun, but also challenging.

American Sign Language (ASL) does not mirror spoken English in sentence construction which made it hard for us to translate our thoughts into this new visual way of communicating. Between lessons, we also lost a lot of what we had learned since we didn’t have any consistent practice partners. Eventually we stopped the sessions.

Sign Language ≠ Accessibility For Most People With Hearing Loss

At first I shrugged off my experience with the media rep with a roll of my eyes and a chuckle, similar to the times when people have told me that I don’t look deaf, but upon further reflection, this mistake seemed different. The misperception that people with hearing loss generally know sign language could have serious ramifications for accessibility.

According to Wikipedia, there are 250,000 – 500,000 people using ASL today in the United States, including a number of children of deaf adults. This represents about 1% of the estimated 48 million people in the United States with hearing loss, meaning sign language is not the norm for the vast majority of people who have trouble hearing.

Much education about how to make things more accessible for people with hearing loss is needed. Sometimes, when people with hearing loss ask for an accommodation at a hospital or museum, they are told that the only available option is a sign language interpreter. This should not be the case.

As people with hearing loss outside of the Deaf community, we must continue to  raise awareness with legislators, leaders at cultural institutions, medical facilities, and schools as well as with the general public about the accessibility options that work best for us. These include things like assistive listening devices (i.e., pocket talkers, FM or infrared systems), captioning of all types, and hearing loops. Even paper and pencil can be helpful when used effectively. The one accommodation that will not work for most of us is ASL.

Readers, do people assume you know sign language because you have hearing loss?

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46 thoughts on “Why Do People Assume Everyone With Hearing Loss Can Sign?

  1. My graduate school graduation in 2015 was a big event, filling Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall. An ASL interpreter was used, but no captioning. I, of course, didn’t get a word through the entire ceremony, but the signing was a good show for the audience, even though only a handful of people probably benefited. I am sure that many more would have appreciated CART.

    In 2018, in advance of an academic conference, I was sent an email asking if I had hearing issues and was offered an ASL interpreter. I explained that I don’t sign, but would require captioning, which was provided without any issues. However, the default assumption was to offer signing. I think that the misperception is fueled in part by media and politicians. When Bloomberg was mayor, he gave prominence to an ASL interpreter he used at press conferences. As at my graduation, this gives the appearance of assisting people with disabilities, but, as you point out, actually only helps a small percentage. The high visibility of interpreters may lead those with normal hearing to think that most of us with hearing loss can actually sign. Of course, appropriate assistance should be provided for the Deaf, most of whom probably can read captioning, but I think that an interpreter is most useful in an interactive situation when a Deaf person needs to “speak,” not when (s)he needs to “hear” and is merely sitting in a passive audience.

    Jon Taylor

  2. Definitely! In all my years of advocating for people with hearing loss, the assumption that we all use sign language has been the biggest stumbling block. Thankfully, captioning has gotten more traction over the years, but I have still attended events where a well-intention planner only provided an interpreter, thinking that would cover the needs of all people with hearing loss. It seems this work never ends – so it is so important to request captioning whenever needed (and as universal access for public events), and educate at every turn!

    • Such an important topic – one, as Arlene says, so many of us have pondered and written about. As you say Sheri, many of us are offered ASL when we don’t use it. Signing is so visible. Important also – others don’t believe we are struggling to hear, because we don’t use sign language and we speak. We are not believed because we don’t “look” deaf.

      By the way, CCACaptioning dot org has recently ramped up advocacy for Live Event Captioning (CART captioning) to raise awareness that Captioning is our language, to educate, and to encourage others to ask for it, even when they have to explain all this, over and over again.

  3. While I am Canadian, the statistic is probably comparable. I had no idea the percentage was so low. I too have taken a few sign language classes – once with my son – but you “use it or lose it” and I lost it! It was a lot of fun though. It does worry my though as my hearing loss is progressive and I can see myself as an elder not being able to communicate with people BUT if your statistic holds true then there will be no one to talk to me anyway! LOL

  4. Yep! I do know some ASL but it is not my preferred commutation method. I sometimes would allow to just have an interpreter and ask them to use their mouths and more English please. But for a couple years now I ask for a CART provider if I go to an event. I won’t put up with an interpreter anymore because it doesn’t benefit me. I do hate the assumption that anyone who is hard of hearing knows ASL. Just as people should not assume that if you are deaf you can lip-read. EDUCATE EVERYONE YOU KNOW!

  5. So glad you wrote about this. It is a pet peeve when hearing people ask me if I sign I usually count to 10 and then say, “oh wow you know ASL. Wish I knew it to converse with you”.
    We definitely need better education for the communities we interface with

  6. I have hearing issues and wear aids, I am not deaf just someone that doesn’t always understand all of the works being said. I do read lips to a point, I do not understand sign language, and have been severally talked down to for not understanding it by a judge when I went in for jury duty. I am a very blunt person and bluntly told the judge I have hearing issues but I am not deaf, and I disapprove of his comments. And I was honest to say that the court system needs to understand the differences too. The judge did apologize. I feel we have to stand up for our rights and for ourselves.

  7. I was leaving my building one day and was approached by a stranger. It was a week when I was having serious mechanical issues with my hearing instruments. Anyway, this stranger seemed to be asking questions about where I live. Maybe he wanted to know if there was any availability. Not sure what he said exactly. I told him I was unable to hear him and pointed to my ear. He raised his voice and said ” Can you sign,” while signing at the same time. I don’t know ASL but I believed he “Fake Sign.”

    Its possible the perception from the hearing community is that they recognize most people with hearing loss have difficulties from time to time. In that case, why not know sign language in case you need it. Furthermore, every community wants to put people in categories for convient purposes.

  8. So glad you brought attention to this constantly recurring – and wrong- notion that ASL meets the needs of hard of hearing. I share your experience that people who should know better, simply do not. Perhaps if more people with hearing loss are more “visible” (eg advocate!) we will gain better awareness of technology solutions including assistive listening systems and hearing assistive technology. Personally, when working with venues and legislators accustomed to “delivering “ visible ASL to be ADA compliant, I quote the stats and simply say they need to offer CART for hard of hearing, also. They always seem surprised but then we can have a meaningful conversation about the array of accessibility technology. Recently at a Council Hearing where ASL, ALS and CART were provided (after informative discussions) I was encouraged that a Council Member’s webpage equally featured both ASL interpreter and CART screen – an Instagram moment. Folks are educable but we must advocate for the accessibility we need!

  9. I’m often signed to when I inform others about my hearing loss.

    Every time I’ve specifically requested CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation)/Live Captioning, I’ve been offered an ASL Interpreter as a first response.

    When I lived in Germany, I stopped in at the Deaf Center in Munich to see what kind of equipment was available for a light flasher to let me know when someone was ringing my doorbell. Even after explaining that I lipread and didn’t sign, the people there continued looking for someone who knew American Sign Language. They just couldn’t believe I didn’t use sign language.

    Why? I think it’s because Sign Language is the face of the Deaf Community and the general public isn’t aware of anything in the middle of Hearing and Deaf. The Hard of Hearing (HoH) Community isn’t very visible to the general population, and we don’t have an attention-grabbing movement that represents our numbers well. Those of us who are active in advocating for the HoH, and for the things that assist us-captioning, hearing loops, assistive technology, etc.-know about what’s out there for us. However, we represent a very small percentage of people in the U.S. with significant hearing loss who don’t use sign language to gain access to communication. Most people don’t even know what CART is, let alone request it, and until the HoH Community becomes as cohesive as the Deaf Community we’ll never achieve what they have with Sign Language.

    I agree, Sign Language is a beautiful language and it works well for the Deaf Community. Those who are Deaf have worked tirelessly for over decades to make the world recognize their need, and they should be accommodated. The Deaf Community was very instrumental and visible in the movement that brought about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and those of us who are a bit older will remember the Sign Language Interpreter oval that appeared on select TV shows in the 1970s.

    The HoH Community is going to have to make it known that captioning is our language, in the same way the Deaf Community made it known that Sign Language is their language. Until we do, we’ll remain invisible to the general population and public.

      • Captioning is more than our language alone (of deaf, hoh, deafened). Just to add that it’s the world’s language, since many people who are not fluent speaking English, can read English quite well, and some international meetings for many years have used Live Event Captioning for that reason. (Ditto in other countries and for their native languages.)

        Also, there are millions of others without hearing loss who use captioning, e.g. people with tinnitus and no hearing loss, autism, auditory perceptual differences, hearing people in quiet places, in noisy places too.

        The big challenge is to find new ways to publicize Captioning language as our equal right under the ADA for effective communication access, for all public events (meetings, conferences, lectures, celebrations, education and training, and more).
        Best to all, with thanks to Shari for her communications!
        Lauren, CCACaptioning dot org, captioning advocates

  10. I’ve had my hearing loss since birth. I’m in my 60s and I never heard of CART. I grew up in an era when children with hearing loss were “mainstreamed” in school and had to live and learn in the hearing world. There was no other option. Since I had to live in a hearing world there wasn’t an option to learn sign language. In the 1980s when I discovered Closed Captioned TV my world was greatly expanded. I’m sure if I had an option to use CART my world will greatly expand again.

      • It looks like caption telephone. I haven’t seen CART in use, but can see how it would greatly help those of us with hearing loss. I plan to learn more about it. I’d love to hear more about groups or organizations that are trying to bring about awareness for hearing loss, and make changes to help our lives, if you could expand on this. Thank you!

      • Hearing Loss Association of America (hearingloss.org) supports widespread captioning as does ccacaptioning.org, which has commented on this post. There are probably other organizations as well.

  11. Hi

    It’s a difficult one isn’t it. If we are being “all inclusive” then it is important that all methods of communication are included.

    In that I’d include lip speakers for those who lip read.

    In a way doesn’t the whole topic present the issues that all of us have whether hard of hearing or hearing impaired or indeed deaf or deafened in that everyone has different communication needs and preferred methods of communication?

    Personally, I learnt to sign when I attended a Deaf school to complete my education after I lost most of my hearing through an illness as a young teenager.

    Captioning is important too from providers of various forms of visual media.

  12. I grew up oral so I feel where you’re coming from. My first language is English so CART and captioning are super-important.

    In first grade I told my teachers I didn’t need to read.
    “But Paul, if you invent something, how will you write it down”
    “I’ll have a secretary for that!”
    “But what if your secretary secretly puts their own name on your idea?”

    When I meet deaf people who can’t sign, it’s just seems very unfortunate. Watching them struggle to communicate among themselves in noisy environments just seems so… unnecessary. And of course they’ll tell me it’s hard to learn ASL (it is) or that not everyone can sign (although many can). Technology is great and can be a more appropriate accommodation in some contexts but it doesn’t replace the fluid spontaneous human communication that ASL enables.

    Eventually I fell in love with reading.

  13. CART is great if you can find someone who does it and you can afford it. It’s ridiculously expensive and can take time to set up before an event . Sign language is fantastic, but only works well for the deaf community. Period. You rarely can lip read a sign language interpreter especially if they do fluent ASL, and they sign so fast and their facial expressions can sometimes be totally misleading that you are better off just sitting up close to the speaker and lip reading them instead . I tried many times to learn ASL but found it confusing and distracting, honestly , and lip reading is my area of expertise and I’ve survived pretty well all these years with just using that .

  14. I can’t sign but I need captioning on everything and most openly seem to resist it and I’ve had to leave doctor’s practices or clinics because ASL was literally the only accommodation they were willing to offer.

    • I actually had my ENT contact the local clinic to explain to them what Meniere’s Disease was and that I really was severely hearing impaired. I’ve bee fortunate to have an ENT who is willing to advocate for me.

  15. I can’t begin to tell you how often this ‘option’ has been offered to me. That, along with the statement “Why don’t you just learn sign language?” It’s a visible language, so people ‘outside the know’, identify it as a universal solution to providing communication access to all people with hearing loss. CART is a wonderful option. It’s a shame that more court reporters are not trained to provide it. More schools should be including this in their technical college programs. More providers would help costs go down. The CART provider who works our HLAA chapter meetings travels 140 miles round trip to our meetings so we also pay mileage for her services. She is worth it…but it sure would be nice to have other providers who live closer. CART is a highly technical skill and it’s going to be expensive to provide, regardless. We have all been working hard to educate people about technology that helps the majority of people who are part of the hard of hearing population. That includes hearing loops, FM, IR, and now a variety of speech to text apps that we never dreamed possible of having even a decade ago. I remember talking about this possibility with early SHHH/HLAA members as like it was a dream. I’ve been involved in HLAA since 1983, and have seen the development of so many options for people with hearing loss. We are so fortunate to have what we have now. It’s amazing though, and sad, to realize how many people with hearing loss, especially those with adult onset hearing loss, have never experienced any of these helpful technologies. Why on earth aren’t people in the medical fields doing more educating on this? That includes those in the hearing healthcare field. It’s no wonder the public sees sign language in action and thinks it’s a universal solution. Great topic.

    • Great points. A lot of options exist, we just need to educate people about them. This includes people with hearing loss and the healthcare personnel helping them. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  16. Its all about respecting diversity in the field of hearing loss:
    It so difficult for some individuals and organisations to respect diversity and the individual’s rights and desire to be referred to by their preferred terminology?

    NCPD in South Africa
    for example, accepts and supports the preference of some people who are hearing impaired/post-lingual deaf, and are not members of the Deaf community, to refer to themselves as being hearing-impaired or persons with disabilities. This is a basic human right and is not negotiable.

    For some people, having a hearing impairment means that there is a loss/impairment of hearing which may possibly be “fixed” and/or that they have the right to reasonable accommodations (for example hearing technologies, assistive devices and alternative methods of communication), and the term hearing impairment is thus an accurate description of their disability. There is no reason why it should not be used to describe people who would like their impairment to be “fixed”and/or who align themselves with the benefits of the UCRPD/Disability legislation, Codes & Guidelines.

    The human right of freedom of choice means that nobody has the right to criticise them for making this choice; the right to freedom of association means that they may freely associate with others who feel the same way. Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is clear regarding the different type of impairments, including sensory impairments.

    It is important that all persons respect and acknowledge each other’s rights to choice, to freedom of association, to seek assistance for the barriers they experience, to acknowledge the diversity amongst themselves and to refer to themselves by their preferred term.

    There are bigger battles to fight than quibbling over “hearing impairment”. This ongoing battle is confusing and difficult for employers/role players to understand. Eradicating “hearing impairment” won’t gain us access to healthcare, access to employment, service providers (banks, shops, and so on), better education, captions on TV, etc. and, last but not least, respect for the diversity between everyone.

    Jumping up and down about “hearing impaired” isn’t going to solve any of these practical issues. Let everyone label their own hearing loss how they wish. It’s up to them. It’s their body, their deafness/hearing loss/impairment/disability, etc.

    It is because of this battle against certain terminology that is accepted by the United Nations that many persons on grassroots still struggle to be reasonably accommodated in society.

    Lets rather work together towards a society that is inclusive and accessible for all.

    Fanie du Toit
    Specialist: Hearing impairment & deaf affairs
    National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD)

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