In almost every blog I read these days about a deaf person standing up for himself, there will usually be at least one comment that looks something like this:
“Oh, grow up! Not everything is about audism! You can’t blame hearing people for not knowing how to react…”
This type of comment rarely varies with the story. The deaf author of the original blog might have assertively resolved a problem with an airline attendant, a pet store employee, or anyone else. Nonetheless this type of comment informs him in every case that he was wrong to do what he did. It also doesn’t matter what type of assertive action the deaf author actually took. Calmly talked to the guy? Oh grow up! Assertively expressed frustration by saying, “When you said that, I felt irritated”? Not everything is about audism!
Don’t you find that kind of response disturbing? I do. For one thing, it’s an expression of frustration in and of itself (indicating that the commenter can tolerate his own frustration but not anybody else’s). I also find it disturbing because I happen to agree with one part of it: indeed, not everything is about audism.
But so what? Plenty of things are about ignorance, and ignorance is bad enough. Many of us know all too well how it feels to put up with hearing people’s ignorance day after day. The hearing flight attendant didn’t know what to do with us; so now we’re a bit weary of flying. The hearing pet shop employee had no idea how to meet our communication needs, so now we’re on guard against the next clerk that might say something insensitive. We can let these things go, but if we don’t do so efficiently, an isolated incident can quickly feel like an unrelenting bombardment of ignorance. And ironically enough, this is when we’re most likely to respond with anger—not assertiveness.
Why should that be so?
Some people unfortunately believe that anger and assertiveness are the same thing, and furthermore, they’ve been trained to believe that anger itself is inherently bad (rather than a natural emotion). Thus they shy away from developing their own assertiveness skills—in much the same way that they shy away from expressing (or even allowing themselves to consciously feel) anger. But in the end that system cannot work, because anger is generated from stress. If a customer service rep hangs up on you during a relay call (thinking you’re a telemarketer), that causes stress. If the flight attendant wants to bump you up to first class because your original (and the only remaining) seat in the coach section is right next to the emergency hatch—how will he be able to open it if he can’t hear the instructions?—that causes stress. It causes stress even when you get a freebie out of the situation (a first class seat for the same amount of money as a coach seat, for example). You might argue: Who wouldn’t want to be bumped up to a first class seat from a coach seat? Good question. But how good will you keep feeling once you realize the airline attendant apparently didn’t think enough of you to hand over the laminated set of illustrated instructions that she was holding right there in her fingers?
Where do you think all of that stress goes? It adds up, and you’ve got to deal with that stuff. If you aren’t dealing with it, rest assured that it will someday deal with you—probably by giving you a heart attack. Stress doesn’t magically dissipate just because you’ve trained yourself to stuff it down and ignore it. Stress doesn’t acknowledge your dysfunctional belief that irritating events will somehow simply bounce off of you. You can’t cheat your way out of getting rid of the stress, either, not even through so-called “healthier” outlets. A hard game of racquetball won’t help you get over the way the ignorant hearing clerk at Blockbuster treated you last week because the racquetball isn’t the problem. The clerk has been clueless since you first met him a year ago, and he’ll still be clueless tomorrow. No matter how many times you smash the ball into the wall; in the back of your mind you’re going to wonder whether or not that clerk might have long since learned from the error of his ways if only you had said something to him!
What if all of your silence, all of your “good,” non-confrontational behavior in fact helped create a large part of your resentment toward the guy? Maybe that’s why we keep seeing these types of comments. Some people cannot handle their discomfort over watching other deaf people stand up themselves because it reminds them too much of all the responsibility they never took for their own lives. That’s why they need to emphasize so strongly that “not everything is about audism.” The criticism might be true, but nine times out of ten it’s also irrelevant. Thus it distracts others from the process of developing their own healthy boundaries, their own healthy techniques for resolving conflicts. And why should that surprise anyone?
If you don’t know how to assert yourself, distraction is probably the only coping skill you have.