The Good Wife Works, by Elizabeth Ellis— Listening to and learning from a deaf Black man


Elizabeth Ellis Square He was a really handsome Black man. It wasn’t until I asked him the time and he pointed to his watch with a small gesture that I realized he was deaf. We talked every day after that on our commute to work. He carried pen and paper; I took an American Sign Language (ASL) class and bought a sign language dictionary.


He was not born deaf. Childhood illness: spiked temperature, high fever. He was taunted — “Dummy!” — and teased for not being able to talk.


He didn’t wear a hearing aid. You couldn’t see his disability. He told me he didn’t like wearing a hearing aid. It “hurt” and the rewards are smaller to the deaf community than to parents and to the medical profession who foist it on them.


Hearing people are the ones obsessed with sound, said scholar of the deaf Arden Neisser, and “no living creature organizes its behavior around something it doesn’t have.” Dogs with three legs go running on as if they had four.


A deaf woman wrote that a hearing aid created cacophony: not the sound of the human voice she most wanted, but all the sounds she did not — like going from a dusty trail in Montana to midtown Manhattan. Traditional occupations for the deaf were printmaking and lithography or other positions near loud machinery.


And if that bus we rode to work each day broke down, who would explain to this deaf passenger that he was being told to get off? He could’ve driven; he had a newer model car. His daughter told me it had been stolen once already and that he couldn’t hear the commotion when it was broken into, which it was constantly. I didn’t even know deaf people could drive, let alone get a driver’s license. He coached other young deaf people on how to pass their driver’s exams.


The man told me he was esteemed and accepted in his own community: the deaf culture.


In an editorial to the Washington Post, Gallaudet University (the Harvard of deaf people) President I. King Jordan said, “More people are curious about, learning about, and becoming aware of deaf culture, the abilities of deaf people, and the richness of the deaf community. More people are coming to realize that deaf people really can do everything but hear.” There is deaf theater and deaf church.


The deaf man I knew was captain of his football team at the deaf high school in a city 50 miles from here. His picture hangs in the trophy case of the front hall. He ran three miles a day.


He won 10 gold medals in track at the Deaf Olympics. Someone told me, “That doesn’t count. How many other deaf people could there have been to run against?” 1,663 athletes competed in the World Summer Games for the Deaf in Cologne, West Germany in 1981.


In the deaf community, David Alan Stewart writes, sport organizes, socializes, creates heroes and guardians, and reinforces rituals and values. Sport is a safety valve. The deaf man I knew drew pictures of the cutting tape at the finish line.


A coach once complained that deaf athletes can’t be ignited to fight or compete, that their parents in an effort to spare them further hardship do not push them; overprotect, even restrict them.


The deaf man I knew told me his mother is “bossy.”


A deaf woman once told me that in her parents’ desire that she be as hearing-like as possible, they forced her to read lips. It wasn’t until she went to college that she learned sign language.


Neisser writes of deaf people that speech is “always difficult, never natural, never automatic, never without stress. It violates their integrity.” Many of our letters are indistinguishable to a deaf person. They must keep eye contact at all times and never look away. “What’s that loud noise?” reading lips could look like “What’s that pig outdoors?”


Not knowing what he sounded like made the deaf man I knew self-conscious. I heard him laugh once. It sounded like tinkling bells.


“Words,” Herman Hesse wrote, “do not express thought very well; everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish. “ Thirty percent of speech is words, but 45 percent is context.


Much of sign language is mimicry and reading people’s faces and body language. “I can read your face,” a teacher once told puzzled pupils in a computer class, “but I can’t read your mind.”


The deaf man I knew detected moods faster than anyone I knew. His syntax and structure were not traditional. Sign language has no tenses and, Harlan Lane writes, “language [does] not depend on our ability to speak and hear, but [must be] a more abstract capacity of the brain.


“‘The person who refuses to communicate’” Lane continues, quoting Albert Memmi, “severs the psychological ties that connect him to the other person. In so doing he isolates the other person and can drive him to despair.”


The father of the deaf man refused to sign.


A first glance at the man’s handwriting showed a strong, clear, sound person. When I read that Neisser says she never does an interview without an interpreter, I was shame-faced to think I understood the deaf man. In restaurants, the waitresses always addressed me and not him even when it was his meal being ordered. We do not know his language, but he is required to know ours.


“There is a voice within me,” wrote Sylvia Plath, “that will not be still.”
I asked the man, “Do you think in words or in pictures?”


“Both,” he said. In his opinion much of close-captioned TV was stupid, worthless, wasted, but imagine not having to listen to commercials.


“Bodies,” wrote E.M. Forster, “are the instruments through which we register and enjoy the world.”


Deaf people can feel the planks of a wooden floor vibrate when someone walks through the room. Being deaf doesn’t make them less of a person or stupid. “Dumb,” according to the dictionary, means lacking the power of speech. We assume when nothing comes out of their mouth nothing’s coming out of their mind, and we’re wrong — we keep deaf people embarrassed, ostracized, publicly humiliated.


“Hard life,” the man signed.



Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to