Things I Learned from People who Talk with Their Hands

Ironically, of all the places where it’s useless to talk with your hands, talking with someone who’s deaf never made it on my list.  Until this.

It was my day to answer the phone in our area agency on aging office.

“This is a TTY relay operator.  You are receiving an incoming call from…[pause]….Matt,” a voice told me.  “I will be typing your response to him.”

Matt, it turned out, was deaf and in his forties.  I didn’t know this at the time but “TTY” stands for “Text Telephone” — which existed before the age of texting.  Matt told me through the operator that something was wrong with the power at his house. The lights kept dimming or “browning out”.  He and his girlfriend had had an electrician over to look at things but, being deaf, something was lost in communicating the problem and the electrician never fixed it.  The refrigerator was not able to keep food cold and Matt said they couldn’t afford to keep replacing the groceries that spoiled.

Our information and assistance phone line had recently begun to serve adults with disabilities under the age of 60.  The expansiveness of this realm would take several years to become apparent. Where age typified the older people on our caseload and determined what services they were eligible for, in the disability community, disease or diagnosis determined eligibility — and not every disability had an organization that offered resources.

Rather than receiving benefits because you reached a certain age (AKA Medicare), those between the ages of 18 and “older” only received benefits based on need (like Medicaid) or because they fell into a group that could provide services based on impairment.  As we discovered, stuff you could get if you had vision loss was different than stuff you could get if you had cancer. This led to a creative attempt on the part of providers and clients to piece together services when basic needs needed to be met. Unlikely situations were par for the course.

Matt continued on that he felt sure the problem was where the power came into the house, not the wiring itself.  I, on the other hand, awkwardly talked over him and received a reprimand from the operator to wait each time I spoke.  I decided it would be easier to see what services I could pull together and head over. Matt gave me his address and phone number.  His girlfriend, he told me, could hear a little bit in her left ear if I yelled so that would be how we could communicate. I told him I’d see him soon.

My go-to for things I couldn’t fix was Joseph, the coordinator of our local volunteer program.  He wasn’t afraid of creative solutions, loved wiener dogs and had once raised an orphan crow as a pet.  If there was something we could piece together, Joseph wasn’t afraid to try. I explained Matt’s power situation and Joseph had one idea.

“Well, I actually do have a volunteer who used to be an electrician,” Joseph told me.  Matt wasn’t over the age of 60 so technically Joseph couldn’t send the volunteer out under the official volunteer program…but he’d see if the volunteer might spare some personal time to take a look.

“There’s just one thing about him,” Joseph hesitated.

“What’s that?” I had already offered to accompany the volunteer whenever he was available.

“He’s pretty hard of hearing.”

Tom the Electrician was game to save the day or at least take a look at Matt’s electrical situation.  I gave him the address and scheduled a visit for Thursday.

Driving to Matt’s house, I realized I was getting closer and closer to the train tracks.  So close, in fact, that the gravel driveway where I parked was also an access point for the railroad company to reach the tracks.  Tom pulls up, grabs his tool-belt and we ring a doorbell that doesn’t seem to work. I knock hard on the door, wondering how Matt will hear us.  What sounds like a pack of wild dogs erupts inside. Matt opens the door and lets us in. His mutt-dog, Tigger, jumps on our legs and Matt’s girlfriend smiles up from where she’s kneeling next to a whelping pen holding five half-grown chihuahua puppies and their mom.  What could be a better doorbell when you’re deaf?  I think.  And who else could handle the noise of so many dogs?

I am about to shake Matt’s hand when something causes the dogs to erupt into barking again.  I cover my ears and stare at Matt. He and his girlfriend laugh and shrug. Tom the Electrician also shrugs.  What are you doing being so sensitive? I feel like they’re saying.

Tom shouts loudly into the girlfriend’s left ear that they should show him where they think the problem is.  The girlfriend signs to Matt, he signs back to her and they motion Tom over to the refrigerator. Pulling it away from the wall, Tom does something to test the outlet.  He gives a thumbs up, tests another socket, more thumbs up. Matt, however, shakes his head and signs to the girlfriend.

“Too weak, too weak. They were brighter.” she says, translating what Matt had signed and pointing to the overhead light. She nods at me, “He’s right, they really were.”

Tom checks the outlets in the bedroom and the hallway.  He says he can’t find any problems shaking his head to Matt and then gestures that they should go outside.  Matt takes us to the side of the house where the power lines come into the box. Tom opens the box and the train tracks start zinging behind us.  A train is coming. Just as I’m about to say something, a huge engine pulling probably 50 cars of coal blows its whistle. I’m drowned out. Matt and Tom barely notice and continue on with their inspection.  The girlfriend looks at me, smiles and shrugs.

They say that only 30 percent of English is visible on the face but that people who are deaf can pick up on nonverbal cues to the point where it’s impossible to hide your thoughts.  Instead, if there’s something you don’t want to say, you have to redirect and quickly think of something else. It’s like riding a bike where, if you look at the rock in the path, you’ll hit it.  If you have any judgment about the house smelling, look out the window instead of at the dirty sheets. Given this, I knew that I couldn’t hide the fact that I was frustrated with all the noise and my timing being off for when it was my turn to talk.  It’s easy to interrupt someone who is signing because those of us who are hearing-abled have a gut instinct to think it’s our turn to talk when there’s silence.

As the train rumbled by, I knew my cover was blown — I was the one who had coordinated this meeting and I was having the hardest time with communicating.  I tried once more to shout something and the girlfriend leaned over so her left ear was close to me. She still didn’t hear me. Then Tom notices that I’m trying to say something so he leans over but the train drowns out my voice.  I try to pick up where we left off once again but I’m lost. Tom and Matt are on the same page; Matt and his girlfriend who can sign are on the same page. I’m not. It doesn’t matter. I give an exasperated shrug. Matt signs something, looks at the girlfriend, then at Tom who nods.  They all just look at me, smile and shrug back.


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Jill Eelkema

Having the right guidance as you or a loved one journey through life’s transitions makes a world of difference. Jill’s helped countless individuals and families work through major life changes with confidence and dignity. Her expertise in psychotherapy, care management, and facilitating tough conversations with family members will give you confidence and peace of mind no matter how tough life gets.

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