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Is it okay to speak for my deaf or hard of hearing friend?

self advocacy for deaf and hard of hearing people

Living deaf in a hearing world means that we might miss a hearing person talking to us from a distance or not understand what someone is saying. Hearing friends might try to step in to let others know that I am deaf. When does it cross the line?

I recently moved to a new town with a close friend I made over the summer. We both worked for the same company and chose Washington state as our next place to live and snowboard. When we first arrived in our new town, we ran errands, hiked and spent ample time together. Relocating to a friendly town meant lots of small talk and interactions with random strangers.

Eventually, my friend mentioned how she often answered questions for me or spoke for me when I didn’t hear something. We noticed it was creating these weird preconceptions. People either thought we were in a romantic relationship where she was the talker or people thought I was incapable of speaking or listening. Both weren’t accurate ideas we wanted to give.

When is it appropriate to have someone speak for you?

That brought the question of when should she speak for me or help out. I realized this was difficult to answer because it is purely situational. I appreciated her help but I also did not want to be rendered incapable and miss out on my own interactions.

When I’m on my own, I figure it out. It’s just up to me to converse and if it works out, fantastic. If not, I’m okay with that. I wasn’t always okay with it, but as I get older I realize that I’m not going to be able to understand or communicate with everyone in the world. By myself, with no one to speak for me, I rely on my own advocacy and independence. People talking to me also rely on me to respond as there isn’t anyone else to look to if the communication does not go right at first. If I don’t hear someone say something to me, it doesn’t bother me cause I didn’t hear them. However, when a hearing friend is with me, it’s not as easy for them to just walk away. This is where friends either get my attention or speak for me.

“If I don’t hear someone say something to me, it doesn’t bother me cause I didn’t hear them. However, when a hearing friend is with me, it’s not as easy for them to just walk away.”

So when is the right time to speak for a hard of hearing/deaf person?

There’s no simple answer to this because it’s situational and everyone is different. I’ve traveled with hearing friends and have been in awkward situations where I just cannot understand someone. Maybe they mumble and hardly enunciate. Maybe they have a very thick accent and speak little English. In a case like this, where it’s not getting anywhere, having a friend translate or answer questions for me can be a huge relief. If I was on my own, I would either resort to writing things, pointing out my hearing loss, asking a stranger for help etc.

Other situations occur where I might have missed a ‘walk-by’ question like ‘how are you today?’ or ‘wow, beautiful dog. What kind is it?’ If a friend notices I didn’t catch the question, it can be rewarding to have them nudge me and acknowledge the direction of the person speaking to me. From here, I can usually bounce back with a ‘sorry, what was that?’

There have been situations where my friends would answer a question for me, which would lead into a conversation of more questions about me/us/them. Eventually, the two are having this back and forth banter and sometimes I’m rendered quiet/speechless/mute/not a conversationalist and it becomes hard for me to find the right time to jump in. Sometimes this can be annoying and sometimes I just wait it out, depends on my mood.

The importance of self-advocacy

There have been a few situations that involved people speaking for me that REALLY upset me. Over the summer, I worked as a naturalist/photography guide. Pre-tour, the guests would get off a cruise ship where dock representatives gathered them based on the tour they chose. The guide would arrive shortly after and the appropriate group would be handed off to them. I was once connected to my tour group with a wildly tarnishing introduction.

This co-worker presented me my group and began a self-made speech, which included: “so guys, this is Jaime and she will be your tour guide today. She is deaf and read lips so you want to make sure you are looking at her. She is going to do her very best to read all of your lips but it may be a little difficult. But she’s going to try her hardest to give you an awesome tour today!’

Immediately, my heart dropped and I watched the faces of my tour group change. Instead of informing them of my own abilities, they were told from someone else who was standing 2 feet next to me. GUYS, self-advocacy is a huge thing here. Things sound different when someone else speaks for you. So what happened was everyone’s minds began to churn on what to expect, assumptions and pure wonder of how I was going to be able to give a good tour. One woman started signing to me and I regretfully informed her that I didn’t sign. Another man started speaking to me with WAY more enunciation and volume than needed.

“GUYS, self-advocacy is a huge thing here. Things sound different when someone else speaks for you.”

It’s best to just ask

I was very frustrated as I listened to him give this speech and watched the effect. I knew I was going to have to work three times as hard to please and exceed expectations of my tour. It might be different for others, but I don’t want to be introduced by calling immediate attention to my weaknesses before I have had a chance to establish my own relationship, needs and strengths.

I’ve come up with a rough analogy that I think helps describe the effect of a situation like this. If had a friend with depression or anxiety and introduced them to you with a forewarning of ‘This is Tara, she has anxiety but she’s going to do her very best.” You would probably feel a little nervous, you wouldn’t know what to expect or what Tara is going to be like. I understand this analogy is very broad but it’s ALMOST the same effect.

From experience, I think the best thing to do is to ask the HOH/deaf person specifically. Pull them aside if you’re in a group or public situation and simply ask what they want/need/prefer. I’m always happy when people ask me because then I can be as open as possible and explain how certain things work for me and others don’t.

Author Details
Jaime is a 28-year-old professional nomad with a lust for experiencing as much life and Earth as she can. Currently, she lives in Washington State where you can find her adventuring with her pup, camping, snowboarding, surfing or whatever else challenges her. She has bi-lateral, severe-to-profound hearing loss, and wears the Phonak Naída hearing aids. Passionate about traveling, she is always planning her next trip. Her adventures are visible through her photography on Instagram @jaimedelpizzo