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Is the phrase ‘falling on deaf ears’ offensive?

falling on deaf ears
Karamo Brown, known famously for his role as the culture coach on Netflix’s ‘Queer Eye’, sparked an interesting conversation on Twitter last week, asking “is the phrase ‘falling on deaf ears’ offensive?” 

The conversation addressed ableism, or “the practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potentials of persons with disabilities,” as defined by StopAbleism.org. Ableism ​is something that affects the deaf and hard of hearing community, as well as people in minority groups and those with disabilities.

After being addressed with the common phrase “falling on deaf ears,” Karamo wondered if it was offensive. He took to the social media platform to get some thoughts.


Is the phrase ‘falling on deaf ears’ offensive?

I spent a lot of time reading through the conversation on Twitter and was intrigued by the variety of responses. More than anything, I was proud and happy to see the deaf communities provide their genuine thoughts.

I personally don’t take offense to the statement, but I loved and resonated with these responses best:

  • Can you hear me? Some pointed out the societal repercussions of conflating the unwillingness to hear someone versus the inability to do so. Make sure you give the person you’re talking to your full attention, whether they have hearing loss or not!
  • Meh. While some people with hearing loss said they were offended, others said they weren’t. Often, these discussions can have a wide variety of responses. If unsure, it could be best to avoid these sensitive phrases alltogether.
  • Say it differently. Some came up with alternatives ways to say “falling on deaf ears,” such as “I feel like I’m talking and the mic is off.” Try to find phrases that aren’t discriminatory.
  • Historical origins. Some pointed out that the origin of such language is rooted in systems that traditionally served the privileged. “We need to examine our words/phrases and recognize their origins,” wrote one user. “I rarely hear the expression ‘that’s so gay’ anymore, and it diminished as people got called out for it. Keep up the good work Karamo, always opening minds!”

Ableist language is “part of an entire system of ableism, and doesn’t exist simply by itself,” says writer and activist Lydia X. Z. Brown. “Language reflects and influences society and culture. [It] isn’t important for silly semantic reasons, but because it cannot be separated from the culture in which it is deployed.””

“Language reflects and influences society and culture.”

Overall, I think Karamo’s discussion about the phrase “falling on deaf ears” opened up a good exchange. I noticed people were learning from each other, which is more than what can be said about most Twitter threads.

Why it matters

People with disabilities often are not asked to explain or comment on their own lives. Caregivers, parents, friends, experts and medical professionals often speak on behalf of people with disabilities. That’s a major issue for those who are disabled, whose lived experiences should take precedence over how other people see them. When people with disabilities don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves, it contributes to both ableism, as well as misconceptions about the lives of people with disabilities.
By opening up the question on a public forum, Karamo gave people the opportunity to speak their minds while offering insight on their own lives.

Making a change

This is not the first time Karamo has spoken to the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Back in June 2018, he pledged to speak with Netflix about the show’s closed captioning, after fans complained. They said that the subtitles censored profanities or were blatantly inaccurate, which some viewers argued was ableist.

Read more: Deaf and hard of hearing Netflix viewers are calling for better closed captions


What do you think of the phrase “falling on deaf ears”? Do you think it is offensive to the deaf community? What other phrase could we say instead? Let us know in the comments!

Author Details
Ashley is a 29-year-old who loves to travel and try new things. She has bi-lateral, severe hearing loss, and wears a Phonak Naída V-SP hearing aid in one ear and has an Esteem implant in the other. She plays soccer for the USA Women’s National Deaf Team. She’s currently traveling the world in pursuit of adventure and perspective while also learning about the deaf and hard of hearing communities in various countries. Her travels can be followed on instagram @ashley5chanel or on her blog deaftattooedandemployed.com.