Christmas is coming, and with it the angst1 so familiar to those of us who find ourselves the only deaf person in a gathering of family or friends.
Most of us belong to hearing families, many of whom don’t use Auslan. Even for deaf people who don’t sign, who rely on lipreading and perhaps hearing aids or cochlear implants, participating in group conversations can be difficult.
So family gatherings can be troubling, and rarely more so than at Christmas, when family is so much a part of the festivities. We want to be there, we want to be part of our family, but we so often feel excluded.
When I ask deaf friends if they had a good Christmas the replies usually go like this: “Ah, it was good to see everyone, the food was yummy, too much as usual, but you know how it is, everyone had a great time talking and laughing and mostly forgot to include me so by the time the day was over I couldn’t wait to leave.”
Unlike many I have heard about, my own family is pretty good. They tell me from time to time what the discussion is about. They sometimes tell funny stories directly to me while others listen. With my husband’s family, John takes on this role. It helps, but it’s not the same as being in a group where everyone signs and communicates easily.
I once took one of my sisters and her husband to a gathering of Auslan-using friends and interpreted only sporadically for them. Afterwards my sister commented on how educational it had been for her.
“Now I understand better what it’s like for you in a group of hearing people,” she said.
A friend, let’s call him Jack, whose family has deaf and hearing members who all use Auslan, once told me a story about a dinner with a hearing aunt. The aunt had also invited a hearing non-signing friend and as the dinner progressed, she and her friend engaged in an animated spoken conversation.
Feeling excluded, Jack decided to make a subtle protest and began to chew his food loudly.
His aunt looked at him and frowned. He stared back meaningfully and continued to chew loudly.
Finally she signed to him discreetly, “Shh! You’re eating noisily! You’re rude!”
Jack signed back, “You’re rude! You’re only talking to him! I’m here too!”
“He’s important!” signed the aunt.
“I’m important too!” signed Jack.
This wasn’t a Christmas dinner story. Deaf people have these experiences all year round, but we seem to feel the pain of them more acutely at Christmas time.
It’s important to do our best to educate our hearing family and friends about how to communicate with us and how to include us in family events. To help us, here are a couple of resources:
Encouraging our families to change can be a long, hard and often unsuccessful road. Rather than endlessly struggling with our own hurt and frustration, I have come to believe that it’s kinder to ourselves to chill out about it a bit, look at it from different perspectives, not just our own, and use strategies to better care for our own wellbeing.
In family gatherings no one is more important than anyone else, and that includes us. Of course every family is different and family dynamics can mean this isn’t always true, but generally speaking, in families everyone wants to feel that they are as important as others.
As deaf people we spend so much of our lives fighting to have our needs met and our rights respected that it can be easy to forget this point. But within the family it is a key point. Sometimes hearing family members also feel their needs aren’t considered. As deaf people our needs are sometimes a bit different but are not more, nor less, important than anyone else’s.
This year we will have Christmas with John’s family, who are less experienced at including me than my own family is. Over the years, John has become better at it, but there are times when he gets caught up in the conversation and forgets. Even if I kick him under the table or give him a meaningful stare he will sometimes respond with a blank-faced, “What?”
So I have found it’s more effective to remind him just before we arrive at such events that I’m going to need him to tell me from time to time what’s happening. And to remind him that saying, “They’re talking about the cricket. Bob thinks the Aussie’s aren’t so good this year and won’t win,” is much more helpful than just saying, “They’re talking about the cricket.”
John tries hard, he wants to do it well, and he does from time to time tell me what’s going on and check that I’m ok, but these things aren’t easy for him either. We have had many conversations about it and he has shown me perspectives I’d never thought of.
Conversations in groups of people can sometimes be about things that don’t interest him. So if I ask him aloud, “What’s she talking about?” it can put him on the spot because he doesn’t know and doesn’t want the person speaking to know he wasn’t listening. He isn’t there to be my interpreter and I don’t expect him to listen to and interpret everything.
Conversations also frequently overlap and sometimes John just hasn’t heard something I’m asking about, he’s been listening to a different conversation.
Sometimes in families there are dynamics that impact on people’s desire or ability to interpret or summarise conversations.
If Aunty Val and Aunty Flo get into an argument about some ancient family history, others may not want to enflame it by repeating any of it for us. A solution might be for someone to tell us quietly in another room, but we might need to ride out our frustration until a suitable moment.
If Grandpa and Dad are discussing some scientific theory that no one else understands, others are only going to be able to tell us they have no idea what they are talking about, it’s some science thing. This can annoy us. We think they just can’t be bothered to explain it to us. But sometimes it really is true. Contrary to what many deaf people often assume, sometimes hearing people really don’t understand things they hear.
Over the years I have become less troubled by the angst so many of us feel in gatherings of hearing people, and my mental health is stronger for it. Conversations with John and others in my family have helped me to better understand the dynamics from a hearing person’s point of view as well as my own.
I have also learned strategies that help me. These include getting involved with the setting up and cleaning up, turning on the TV captions, having one on one conversations, and just zoning out and turning my thoughts to my own interests.
And I have stopped trying to look like I understand what’s going on when I don’t. I don’t care too much anymore what other people think or whether they might feel uncomfortable about my exclusion.
Sometimes I just leave the group and go and read in a chair for a while. No one seems to mind (and I don’t much care if they do) and I’m happy doing that.
And I often take my knitting with me to family gatherings. It’s ideal. I can simultaneously knit and look around, I can be physically in the group and periodically participate in the conversation and still feel I’m doing something enjoyable and personally meaningful with my time.
Perhaps this year I’ll take my knitting to Christmas lunch.
I’d love to hear how you deal with the deaf Christmas angst. However you deal with it, I wish you all a very merry Christmas!
- Angst, often confused with anxiety, is a transcendent emotion in that it combines the unbearable anguish of life with the hopes of overcoming this seemingly impossible situation. Without the important element of hope, then the emotion is anxiety, not angst. Angst denotes the constant struggle one has with the burdens of life that weighs on the dispossessed and not knowing when the salvation will appear. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Angst