Why I Don’t Use Sign to Communicate

A hearing loss is often referred to as an invisible disability. Even though I wear “bling” on my cochlear implant, and have a bright red/orange ear mold on the hearing aid in my other ear, one can’t look at me and tell I have a hearing loss.

The reality is, I’m deaf. But… I’m not culturally Deaf. (The culturally Deaf usually identify themselves with a capital “D” for Deaf). Without my cochlear implant, I can hear less than 5% of consonants from only certain individuals. I could go into the nitty gritty details of what my audiogram shows without my implant, but as it’s almost “Greek” to me, I’m sure it would be “Greek” to you.

I needed an assistance dog for a variety of reasons. Although I was warned by my trainers at Fidos For Freedom, Training on April 5th at Fidos I was unprepared for how visible Chloe made my hearing loss. It’s not every day you see someone come into a store, post office, or restaurant with an assistance animal that is very obviously not blind. Chloe makes my implant bling virtually non-existent in the way she so quickly brings to attention the fact that I have a hearing loss!

It’s funny to see people creep closer to read her vest, and then look at me quizzically until they spot the cochlear implant and/or hearing aid.

At Costco this past weekend, I had several strange encounters. Not “strange” like the “X-Files”, but strange in that it was really weird how different people responded to my hearing loss.

The folks at Costco know me well… they should as I spend a small fortune there each month! They know Chloe even better, and sit on their hands so they don’t reach out to pet her wiggly hello. But the customers are all usually “new” to seeing this bright red hound come into the store with her “deaf” partner.

I had a man/wife couple tip-toe up to me and enunciated very clearly (and with extra exaggeration to the point I almost laughed),

“Doooezzzzzz yourrrr dooooog….. hearrrrr…. fooor…. youuuuu?”

I smiled and said, “She does indeed do that! She has the best ears! She helps me with my balance on rainy days too!”

After they picked their lower jaw up off the floor, they talked to me at length about what Chloe does for me and how I came to be matched with such a wonderful companion. I noticed after about 7 or 8 minutes, that the husband was bi-laterally fitted with hearing aids! No wonder they were so curious… and he talked as clearly as I do with no hint of sign language, etc. (I say that carefully, as I do not mean to infer that those culturally Deaf cannot speak clearly… some do so amazingly well… and it’s not a language that is their own! Many Deaf are able to speak well! But those who do… often have a “Deaf accent” for lack of a better way to explain it. Hey! If I spoke a 2nd language, I’d have an “English” accent for sure!) We parted ways after I deposited pamphlets and brochures about Fidos into their eager hands.

I also ran into a fellow Fidos For Freedom volunteer! Small world!

I rounded the corner of the dairy section… and wouldn’t ya know? I ran into a group of teenage girls. They squealed and came rushing over to Chloe. (I wasn’t about to think they were rushing ME!)

One of the girls… likely around 16-years-old or so, began to painstakingly introduce herself to me in sign. “Hi. My name C-r-y-s-t-a-l”. (This took her about 5 minutes to complete). I patiently waited, and then dropped Chloe’s leash, stepped on it, and used both my hands to sign, “Nice meet (you!) Name-mine, D-e-n-i-s-e, This (pointing to Chloe) ” ” hearing-dog, mine. Name C-h-l-o-e”

They squealed and excitedly tried to figure out what I said for about 30 seconds. Then they got nervous. So I put them out of their misery, and voiced in English:

“Actually, I don’t use sign language to communicate. I am “oral” and use English just like you! My name is Denise and this is my hearing dog, Chloe.”

The sweet young lady who had been brave enough to sign blurted out, “Oh! Well WHY? If you can sign, why would you speak English?”

Chloe alerting to the timer in the classroom so I know class is \As a teacher of ASL (American Sign Language) I had one of those moments… the kind where you hear yourself speaking in a lecture that you did and it echoes in your mind during the moment it actually hits you! Of the 34 million Americans with hearing loss, less than 2% sign. Yet, hearing loss is almost always equated with sign language.

I took a few minutes to explain that everyone in my life has normal hearing, and everyone uses oral English. My daughter’s boyfriend, Mark, has normal hearing. (How can I get to know HIM if I can’t speak English and and use my bionics to hear his responses?) I am the only person with hearing loss in my family, the only one in my church, and the only one at work. I know and teach sign language, because I made a very dear friend in college who was Deaf. The college just happened to have a “College of Deaf studies” as well. I learned sign language to talk to her, I later used it in my church to serve in a Deaf ministry… and then I lost my hearing. If I only signed and didn’t choose a cochlear implant, hearing aids, and reading lips to communicate… I would not have very many people to talk too. Sure… they can learn sign language, but I’ve never been convinced that my world would do anything other than become a lot smaller. (Besides… my husband is truly manually dyslexic! He’s tried to learn for years!)

I teach sign language because I do love the Deaf. I have numerous Deaf friends still! I hope to instill a passion for the language in young people who will go out and make a difference to someone who is Deaf. They may be interpreters or teachers of the Deaf, or… they may only have a one-time opportunity to be a blessing to a Deaf person. I love sign language! It’s beautiful, and many times “says” what spoken word cannot. I “sing” in sign… (I am after all – deaf! Truly, and fully “tone deaf”!)

I realized I had begun to ramble as I saw the girls’ eyes glaze over. TMI!

I know sign language, and can teach it as well. I don’t use sign language to communicate 98% of the time. (Likely, one of the reasons my receptive skills are so poor).

Having Chloe with me 24/7 is like putting a spot light on my disability. And… I’m OK with that! I love to talk about hearing loss. I love to talk about assistance dogs! Heck! I love to talk!

Denise Portis
©2008 Hearing Loss Diary

4 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Use Sign to Communicate

  1. Lovely pictures, Denise!
    And you handled the questions from the people so well! Chloe is quite the little ice-breaker, isn’t she?
    I love to talk, too, so I reckon when my “Woof” arrives I’ll be doing a lot of educating about service dogs in general and mobility service dogs in particular.
    How do you deal with people who come up and want to pat or play with Chloe?
    Toddlers and preschoolers i can understand, but with a little sign on the vest that says “Working, do not pet,” you would think children and adults who can read would “get it.” But from all I’ve read and heart, they don’t. So I need to consider ahead of time how to deal with this,
    Any words of wisdom??

  2. Hey Elizabeth!

    Actually there are likely different responses appropriate for different people depending on the disability.

    My own typical response consists of a variation of a “short answer” or “long answer”.

    If I’m in a hurry, my “short answer” is:
    “I’m sorry! She’s working right now and I need her attention on me alone! I hope you’ll understand, and it’s nothing personal!”

    If I have a little more time, my “long answer” is”:
    “I’m sorry, she’s in vest and when she is I need her attention to not be on anyone but me. You see I have balance problems in addition to being deaf. If she reaches for a hand and I’m not paying attention I could fall. Even though I’m paying attention to her NOW… it’s best for Chloe to know that the vest means no one touches her but me. ”


  3. Great answers! Thanks! I know I’m obsessing about it, but I’m so excited about getting a mobility service dog. I’m trying to anticipate *EVERYTHING* ahead of time, and to make as easy a transition as possible when my “Woof” arrives – in about 2 years! Golly – can I wait that long!!!

  4. I don’t call that obsessing… I call that preparation! I trained for 13 months before I was matched with Chloe, and then it was another 3 months before she came home with me! I know the feeling!


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