7 Things Not to Say to a Parent with Deaf or Hard of Hearing Children

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. The next few months we’ll be focusing on parents of deaf and hard of hearing kids. Previous articles include: diagnosis, choosing a language to communicate in (part I and part II), whether or not to choose CIs for your kid, keeping devices on kids, sports and activities.

It can happen to anyone. Your cousin just found out her son is deaf, or you meet a dad outside school whose daughter wears hearing aids, and you say something awkward. You didn’t mean to, but you did. There’s that short silence while you try and figure out what went wrong. It’s okay, here are some tips for next time you talk about their child. You’ll see, it’s quite simple!
1 – “So is he deaf and dumb?”

Okay, now this one can go both ways. Maybe you meant he is mute, as in if he can’t hear then he can’t talk either. Being deaf does not mean being unable to speak and communicate.  Many deaf and hard of hearing people speak several languages. Some of those languages might be signed languages, others oral languages you can hear. It all depends on their families and personal choices. There are several ways of giving these children access to language.

Young Thomas Edison

And in case you were referring to “dumb”, the colloquial term for “stupid”, you’ll find that deaf and hard of hearing people have exactly the same IQ averages as others. One even invented electric light, motion picture and sound recording, so you have a lot to thank American deaf inventor Thomas Edison for.

So what should you say? Nothing regarding IQ. Possibly ask: “What’s the best way to communicate with him?”

2 – “So this hearing thing?” or ” what’s this headphone?”

Right, back to basics: what you (sometimes) see behind a deaf or hard of hearing person’s ear is typically called a hearing aid. Note that elaborate ones can be a CI (cochlear implant) or bone conduction hearing devices and that some deaf and hard of hearing people get by just fine without aids, either by using residual hearing or by simply not hearing.

Where you’re not completely wrong is that some of these devices can act as headphones. For example, many CIs/ HAs can pick up calls directly, which means some deaf and hard of hearing people can hear phone conversation directly in their ears. I know, cool, right?

So what should you say?  If you really are into tech: “What kind of device is this and how does it work?”
3 – “Don’t worry, your next kid will be fine, I had a friend who’s neighbour’s friend’s aunt’s daughter…”

Hem hem hem! Our child is not broken, neither is she less than a hearing child. She just occasionally requires some additional help and accommodation. For example, she might be cranky or tired in noisy places or she might sometimes not reply, not because she is rude, but she might not have heard you. That’s alright. Sometimes our hearing kids don’t either.

So what should you say? Hmmm, anything, literally anything else! The above is pretty epically insulting.

4 – “So he can hear normally now?”

Define normal because as a hearing person, I don’t know what you actually hear and vice versa. We all know of a friend with “normal” hearing who can’t sing to save her life, yet Mandy Harvey here, she sings beautifully despite being deaf. And remember, Beethoven? Many of his most admired works come from the last 15 years of his life, as he progressively lost all hearing.

America’s Got Talent Deaf Contestant, Mandy Harvey sang the world to silence (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

Another important point: everyone is different. So some deaf or hard of hearing people can hear even very minute sounds with their CIs while others don’t. It really depends. And some people will turn their devices off sometimes, or not wear them.

So what should you say? If you are a well-intentioned friend, family member or teacher who wants to know how to make sure the child understands you, try this: “What should I do to make sure Daniel understands clearly what I’m trying to say?  Does he needs a sign interpreter or do I just speak as usual?”
5 – “Does your child need special help?”

Technically this is not a bad question but some parents do get offended as sometimes the word ‘special’ might lead them to think that you think there is something wrong with the child, and parents being parents, they might get snappy on this subject.

So what should you say? If you need to understand the child’s current or future needs, as their teacher or helper, try this: “What tools or skillsets do the teachers need to ensure your child’s potential is maximised?”
6 – “So will she need this thing after she grows up?”

Again, the “thing” as we have said earlier is a hearing aid and unless she’s a bird and can regenerate her hearing (yes birds do that, scientists are quite excited about this), she will need her hearing aid forever. Really, forever? Yes forever, and it’s actually a pretty cool fashion accessory (or should become one) and you know what? She can take it off and go into her own quiet space. But now we’re digressing…

So what should you say? Do you really need this a piece of information? How about trying “When is a good age to teach her how to care for her devices?”

7 – “So did something go wrong during the pregnancy or was it after birth?”

Woah. Seriously? Think before you speak. It is virtually impossible these parents damaged their child’s ear(s) themselves (unless you saw them with the newborn at a hardcore rock concert standing by the speakers and pouring a deadly potion into the baby’s ears).

You’d never tell someone their child was short-sighted because of something they did! And before you ask: sometimes there’s no point in understanding exactly why a person has different hearing. Assessing what they can and cannot hear is the priority.

So what should you say? Maybe what you meant was: “When did you find out?” I don’t know.

Thanks for reading! Of course, this was meant to be humorous and some of these are a tad over the top. Though you’d be surprised what awkward situations can arise!

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