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Feeling Stupid or ‘Smart-for-Deaf’



I work in an environment where one’s intellect is often a proxy for self-worth. I’m not endorsing this view, mind you, but it is hard to escape it.

Deaf and hard of hearing people have a special version of this: what I call the ‘smart for deaf’ version. That is, we acknowledge that there is just no way we’ll be able to get all of the information that hearing people do through background listening (even if we adopt the strategy of becoming voracious readers and vlog viewers), so we use a slightly a different standard of assessing one’s intellectual chops – one that omits the expectation of everyday knowledge gained through overhearing conversations. Conversations on National Public Radio, audio podcasts, tidbits overheard on the bus, and at the water cooler all escape us. (Note: this holds even for those of us working in mostly signing environments – there are always those partially accessible half-signed/spoken conversations you miss or misinterpret…)

At some point, if the everyday knowledge is pervasive enough, cultural knowledge gaps get filled in – through Facebook, Twitter, or just chatter at the lunch table. At least this is my folk explanation for how doxa  (what “everyone” knows, or believes they know) for the deaf intellectual emerges – you may have a better story.

There are two kinds of “stupid” I’ve been thinking that deaf people deal with:

1. The “everyone knows that” charge, which has the hidden implication of everyone = hearing people. Every deaf person has felt the sting of this charge at some point, and most of us figure out strategies for managing it. Some of us are defiant, others are inquisitive, some dole out shame, some willfully ignore the criticism, but we’ve encountered this enough that we eventually figure out how to manage.  (Think of this as ignorance predicated on partial communication access.)

And I dare say this is one reason why sharing information has such a high value in our community.

2. The other kind of stupid is harder to explain. It’s that feeling you get when you stumble on a problem that seems simple on first glance, and then as you begin to unpack and untangle it, the problem becomes thornier.  Here it isn’t just ignorance, but a feeling that maybe you just lack the cognitive capacity to wrestle with the problem.

If you’re used to feeling stupid in the first way, you might overlook the second. You might think that hearing people don’t encounter this; that this is obvious, and it is just another instantiation of the deaf experience.

You might have this intuition confirmed when others dismiss your question with a simple answer, or (and this is a favorite in the academy) respond to it using their favorite theoretical buzzwords; smooshing (that’s a technical phrase, by the way) their favorite theory onto the problem and generating an answer to your question. Take the person who responds to the question “Is it a good thing to be deaf?” with an unqualified “yes”, asserting that any negative response to this question just indicates audism. End of story.

I want to be clear here – my point is that hard questions sometimes pull us into puzzles or force us to hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts at the same time. The response of dismissing these hard questions with easy answers, along with implying that anyone who doesn’t “see” this easy answer is stupid, is the behavior I am examining, not the answer to the question about the value of being deaf. 

If that person shows enough bravado (that you misread as confidence) and signs (or speaks) eloquently, and no other person around challenges this interpretation, you might just wonder what is wrong with you that you can’t simply accept this claim as everyone else does. Some people might even remark, “Now that’s a really smart person”, as you’re still trying to figure out what you’re missing because you just aren’t following the chain of reasoning.

You might be wondering if you’re just feeling stupid because once again you’re dealing with another instance of ‘stupid for deaf’. That is, missing relevant information (doxa) that everyone else knows. (By the way, this information can be what everyone in the signing Deaf community knows – the concept is culturally relative. It isn’t limited to what everyone in the Hearing world knows!)

And (this is the tragic part) you might decide to give up on a much-desired objective, because you think you’re not smart enough. Sure, you’re ‘smart for deaf’ (but inside, you’ve decided that this doesn’t measure up to ‘smart for hearing’).  But there’s a reason why you should think twice about not giving up.

Some things just are really hard for EVERYONE!  Those who are willing to stay with the hard problems, despite feeling stupid and inept and clumsy, sometimes make progress. And progress isn’t always defined by getting the expected result – the answer to your question. Sometimes progress involves realizing that the approach you thought would yield an answer doesn’t work. Sometimes progress takes years. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and you move on, only to pick up the problem decades later.

Some of us choose to dwell in the realm of the stupid – that space where you are bombarded with simple questions that become more complicated the more you think about them. Now, maybe this is because we’re used to feeling stupid in the first sense (where we don’t know what hearing people know), so there’s comfort (or at least familiarity) in the second (where we just don’t know, full stop).

But there’s more. Think about those stereotypes about deaf people we’ve all seen, starting with ‘deaf and dumb’. Ah, but you say, ‘dumb’ in this context means not speaking with an auditory voice – it has nothing to do with intellect. This is of course true.

Still, sometimes even mistaken associations may cause damage. Not convinced yet?

Consider the work being done on stereotype threat.  The idea here is that when you’re primed with a negative association about your group, you run the risk of performing less well.  I’m not a social scientist, so if you want to discuss things like the merits of research design, you’ll have to do it with people who do this sort of thing for a living. At this point, I just want to note that the research seems to support some correlation, and for me, that’s enough to merit thinking about how this might apply to the deaf community. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t give  hands-held-high-fingers-waggling applause to the Feminist Philosophers bloggers for their work on cognitive error and biases that got me thinking about this.

So… if you’re a deaf person working in a place where the currency of the realm is information and intellect, and you are acutely aware of your status as a deaf person, you might wonder whether stereotype threat kicks in as those moments of stupid crop up.

You might also consider this: it takes a certain kind of courage to stay with the stupid. So a plea: despite the stereotypes you may think you’re reinforcing, please stay with the stupid.

Our community needs this.

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