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Hearing Privilege

Hearing Privilege

Hearing privilege is a concept that’s come up often in discussions in and around Deaf Echo posts that deserves to be called out and looked at in depth. I also find that it has personal relevance: some uncomfortable situations have come up with my family that made me think of this important concept.

Let me start with a story first.

I’m sitting down with a close hearing friend. A relative of mine calls my friend and asks her to relay a message to me. My relative had JUST met my friend for the first time the day before, and my relative uses text messaging with me all the time, and there was no reason my relative couldn’t have simply texted me.

So, in the space of one day, my relative was already ‘using’ my new friend to communicate with me. My relative was taking advantage of her hearing status (and advantages) to confer on my hearing friend the privilege of communication while simultaneously weakening me. I was denied the responsibility and control of handling communication.

To properly explain what I think of this I need to explain what exactly hearing privilege means and that will require a short journey through race relations.

Hearing privilege can be best explained quickly by saying it’s similar to the concept of white privilege. In a nutshell, white privilege is “a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses as much on the advantages that white people accrue from society as on the disadvantages that people of color experience.” (Wikipedia) It’s different than racism and prejudice; racism and prejudice are essentially when a dominant group actively seeks to oppress or suppress other racial groups for its own advantage. It is a privileged position; the possession of an advantage white persons enjoy over non-white persons.

White privilege is everywhere. As a white person, I am conscious that simply being white does grant me privileges that other races do not have (or only have to a limited degree). For example, a writer writes “Every time I walk into a store at the same time as a black man and the security guard follows him and leaves me alone to shop, I am benefiting from white privilege.”

Similarly, hearing privilege is when hearing people view their social, cultural, and economic experiences as a norm that all deaf people should experience. It is a privileged position; hearing people possess an undeniable advantage over deaf persons. The quick reader will rightly point out that whites have an unearned advantage (skin color) while hearing people have a physical advantage (being able to hear), but the privilege itself remains.

Back to my story. Clearly, my relative extended the privilege to my hearing friend and skipped texting me because picking up the phone and speaking on the phone was more convenient.

When a boss decided not to schedule a meeting with me because it was too much of a hassle getting an interpreter, that was hearing privilege.

When I was told, “It wasn’t funny anyway” and that it wasn’t important to know what a person said, that was hearing privilege.

When hearing people around a dinner table had to be reminded to include me in conversations, that was hearing privilege.

When a hearing parent pushes a deaf person to wear a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, that is hearing privilege.

When an abusive hearing boyfriend or girlfriend controls the communication environment, that is hearing privilege.

When I am interpreted for behind my back, over my head, without me knowing, that is hearing privilege.

When the spoken word (in person or on the phone) is privileged and valued as important, and other communication (sign language, writing, cued, etc) is viewed as less important, a chore, or plain dismissed; that is hearing privilege.

What can be done? What does a self-aware hearing person look like? Here are some good examples from my experience:

  • When you visit their house and they turn on the captioning before you arrive.
  • When they ask your permission (or wait for you to ask) to interpret for you in a communication difficulty with another hearing person.
  • When asked to “tell him” or “tell her” something, they politely say, “tell him or her yourself.” They also do not do that themselves.
  • Extra credit: They learn sign language, cued speech, or some other visual means of communication so that they can communicate with you.

If we all become more aware of hearing privilege, it becomes much easier to take that power back for ourselves.  The other day, a hearing friend went with me to an auto parts store.  I began communicating (the best I could) with the guy behind the counter.  My hearing friend started to help me, behind me.

I started to get angry, but I realized… it’s all up to me.  So I told him, “I got this.”  And I did.

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