How not to be a jerk when dining with deaf people


Illustration: Emi Tolibas

I’ve been deaf for 15 years, and I’m mostly used to it. I do not spend very much time wishing I could hear things I can’t, anymore. I do spend a lot of time wishing other people would not be such oblivious jerks think through the logistics of interacting with deaf people a little more thoroughly. For example, I, and every other deaf person I know, have been offered wheelchairs when checking in for a flight, and have been asked if we heard some episode of something on the radio, and have been invited to movies with no captions and events with no interpreters. We have all been given Braille menus at restaurants.

Doing things in public is generally more stressful now, at one level or another, than it was when I could hear. Not because I can’t hear things, particularly, but because other people expect me to. There are a lot of social cues that are communicated through sound, and failing to obey social cues is usually perceived as rudeness. (If hearing people don’t get a response when they talk, they often get really angry. A lady followed me around a bookstore one time for 10 minutes until I finally noticed her and then chastised me and my unforgivably bad manners for what seemed like hours.)

Restaurants are a special case, because the interactions between patrons and staff are so ritualized, and there is an audience of all the rest of the patrons watching everything, and because the staff is always turning down the lights to improve the mood, which is also making it impossible to see anyone’s lips move. It’s not so stressful that I never eat at a restaurant, it’s just that little added edge of worry. Fancy restaurants are usually worse because everyone is way more into the ritualized atmosphere and less willing to change up the routine.

It starts right away! A host takes your name and then you are supposed to hear them when they call it. The host usually is pretty irritated if you ask them to remember who you are and find you, or wave, instead. Shitty franchises with terrible vibrating pagers are way ahead of the accessibility game, here.

Then the server does some sort of charming patter to relate all of the specials and dishes that are unavailable and any other pertinent information that a discerning diner might need to be aware of. There is usually not a written version. The server usually gets very flustered if asked to repeat any of this, or to slow down. I never order a special.

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And then there is ordering, with unexpected questions about types of breads and dressings and sides and substitutions, and then the delivery, with questions about who ordered what and/or if anyone needs anything else. And there are nearby groups staring in fascination or in disapproval at all the hand-waving; and they’re scolding their children for staring; and they’re stopping by to tell me about the kid in their second-grade class who had a hearing aid or show me that they know how to fingerspell their name or tell me they will pray for me.

But do not fear, Hearing People of the World! You can do better! Here’s how:

Restaurant staff

Keep an eye out for sign language, or hearing aids, or cochlear implants, or people who seem to be struggling to hear. Bring a pad of paper and a pen to the table. You may not need it, but it won’t hurt. Look at people when you talk to them in case lip-reading would help them. Use as many gestures as applicable. Admit it if you don’t understand someone, and always talk directly to your customer, not to their dining companion. Consider, at a staff meeting, addressing the issue of structural accessibility and developing some standard plans about How to Deal with Deaf/Blind/Disabled people who would like to enjoy your fine establishment. Ask groups with deaf diners if they would like centerpieces to be removed from the table, and (if possible) if they would like additional light to facilitate easier conversation.

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Nearby patrons

Don’t stare at deaf people. Don’t interrupt the deaf people’s meal to talk to them, unless you are their friends. Don’t talk loudly about the deaf people (notice: not everyone who can sign is deaf). If your child is fascinated by the signing, explain what it is and gently redirect their attention. If you are fascinated by signing, learn how to sign “sorry”—even babies (below) can do it!—, and then sign it if you are caught staring.

Dining companions of deaf people

Be proactive about seating, lighting, and visibility. Do not expect your deaf acquaintances to bear all the responsibility for obtaining an accessible environment. Ask before interpreting for your deaf friend. Make it easy to see your face: Do not talk with your mouth full. Do not cover your mouth. Be attentive to whether or not group conversations are accessible. Remind other hearing companions to behave in deaf-friendly ways.

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Hearing people of all sorts

Do not speak exaggeratedly or gesticulate wildly. Do not cover your mouth with anything while speaking. Do not apologize when you realize you are talking to a deaf person. Smile if you make eye contact. Consider reading a book about deaf culture, taking a class in ASL, or learning some signs.

There are a few cities and neighborhoods in the U.S. that have higher-than-average deaf populations. Restaurants and bars in these places tend to have staff and patrons who are comfortable and familiar with deafness, and as a result the deaf dining experience is much more relaxing. I can assume that communication will not be an insurmountable barrier, that my language will be perceived as neither a spectacle nor an inconvenience, and that I will be able to direct nearly all of my attention to the main attraction: choosing what to eat and drink, and then eating and drinking them. I’d like the cheese board and a dirty martini, please.

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