”You don’t look deaf”

”You don’t look deaf” a phrase I have heard too many times. What does that even mean? What do people expect.. three eyes, no ears? What is ‘looking deaf’?

Those four words have played on my mind for a long time and have been a big part in my fear surrounding identifying as deaf. The fear of not ‘looking’ deaf, the fear of not being ‘old’ enough to be deaf is all apart of an irrational fear based off real life stereotypes which I’m sure a lot of individuals who are D/deaf have experienced at some point.

Although I have had a severe hearing loss for at least 6 years I had never thought or referred to myself as ‘deaf’. I never felt ‘deaf’ enough. But this mindset only pushed me to feel confused and feel stuck in the middle of two worlds. Using the term ‘hard of hearing’ also never resonated with my true self, to me it felt like a very misunderstood term. I was scared of judgement from people surrounding me and even strangers I would come across because to them I might not look deaf. I was also scared of not being ‘worthy’ of using the term deaf. I could hear certain sounds and I had been under the impression ‘deaf’ was not being able to hear anything – I now know how naive and ignorant this impression was.

In 2020 when lockdown hit and masks became mandatory I really started to notice how much I desperately relied on lip reading to be able to understand and follow spoken conversations. In the April of 2021 I went to coffee shop and remember standing in line running through my order in my mind hoping that I wouldn’t be asked any questions by the barista. I stood in front of the till point and asked for my order. A moment of silence was followed by a few seconds of awkward eye contact (although it felt like a lifetime) between myself and the barista and it was in this moment the words ”sorry I am deaf” came out. I had said it. I had said those words out loud for the first time and I couldn’t believe it. It felt scary yet weirdly comforting. It felt like 6 years of struggling, feeling stuck in between two worlds and not knowing how to identify my hearing loss was over and I had reclaimed my hearing loss as mine without anybody else deciding for me.

It was a strange moment, I felt like I deserved a standing ovation and a huge clap for saying those words out loud. To me, it was a big moment of coming to terms and saying it to the world – and when I say world I mean the one barista standing before me. But nothing happened, he removed his masked and repeated his question and that was that. My big moment was nothing but a regular statement to the barista and life carried on.

I have since identified as deaf and I am extremely proud of this and I am proud of my journey to feeling confident enough to be able to reclaim my deafness and allow myself to be comfortable using the term because the truth is I am deaf and always will be.

So.. what is ‘looking deaf’? Well for me- it’s brunette hair, hazel eyes, 5ft 3 and a little bit of extra body padding (am I allowed to blame lockdown for that?). But the point is ‘looking deaf’ isn’t one thing. There is no ‘looking deaf’ and I think although the phrase is usually intended in a non insulting way it still makes no sense. For me it made my journey harder than it should of been due to the fear of not fitting a non existent look. But I made it. I may not ‘look deaf’ but I am and I couldn’t be prouder.

8 responses to “”You don’t look deaf””

  1. I can totally resonate with you!! I suffered complete sudden hearing loss January 2021 and my whole world changed. I am constantly apologising for being deaf and feel totally isolated. I wear a lanyard stating I am deaf but still find people talk to me through masks. I know I shouldn’t apologise but it’s hard not to. I will struggle on in my silent world.

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    • Thank you for sharing your experience and I’m so sorry you feel isolated. I also have a lanyard and like you I find people ignore it and I find myself telling them I am deaf.
      We are all in this together as a community and although it can feel so isolating at times, we are not alone and there is a lot of others who are out there to offer support – even if it’s online support

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story! I, too, struggle with what to call myself. I failed my first hearing test in kindergarten but didn’t get my first set of hearing-aids until I was 23. Even 17 years later I’m still hesitant to call myself deaf because I’m not totally deaf. But hard-of-hearing is such a mouthful!

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    • Thank you for your comment and a bit of background for you story. I used to feel I wasn’t ‘deaf enough’ .. I felt I was intruding on the Deaf community because I wasn’t profoundly deaf and was born and grew up hearing (with only a mild loss at the time). It’s difficult to know what to say.

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  3. Can totally get you don’t look deaf!! Never have worked out what a deaf person should look like. I also get you don’t sound deaf..Never worked that out either. I was born deaf totally rely on lipreading masks are a nightmare I too wear the sunflower layard with I’m deaf card. Have been known to wave it around like a mad woman while I am trying to understand the person at the till, and saying I am deaf, also cupping my ear just to try and get them to realise no matter what they do I cannot hear if wearing a mask. Most people step back lower there mask and repeat others we write on a scrap of paper. I don’t care how they help me to understand I’m just very grateful that they try as it really does make me feel less isolated.

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    • Thank you for sharing your experiences.

      I agree with ‘you don’t sound deaf’ …. Like the sheer ignorance of people really gets me. I do understand there’s a sigma that deaf people can’t speak (or at least with the same pronunciation as hearing people) but now with CI/BAHA/HA’s a lot more Deaf people are learning through speech therapy if needed and through working with their families and adapting to sounds with their aids. But it should be personal choice.

      You’ve mentioned you feel less isolated, I’m sorry you have times of feeling isolated at all but I do understand and I’m sure most people within the community have experienced it at times. With masks it’s been so difficult for lip readers. I hope we see the back of masks soon!

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  4. Thank you for your interesting article I certainly resonate with you I have found myself having to say I am deaf since the pandemic began due to the wearing of face masks and the need to lip read I have been hard of hearing for the last 30 years I am now 68yrs and it’s only the last 2years life has felt difficult with being “ deaf “ but it’s so important to be positive and confident and carry on enjoying your life as best we can

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