Tropes About People With Hearing Loss

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Predictably, many of the tropes relating to D/deaf and hard of hearing characters deal with communication methods and degree of hearing loss. Most, if not all, of these tropes have to do with people’s assumptions and wishful thinking about hearing loss.

All D/deaf and hard of hearing people are flawless lip-readers.

Ah, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Studies have shown that even the best lip-readers can only understand approximately 33% of a spoken conversation by lip-reading alone. Lip-reading isn’t a magical solution for people with hearing loss. At best, it’s a slightly helpful technique.

I’ve read and seen this trope all too often in books, movies, and television. When I was eleven, I read this YA mystery about a deaf girl detective who could lip-read perfectly from 100 yards away. In fact, her lip-reading skills helped her crack a murder mystery she read the criminals’ lips. I admit it, I rolled my eyes a little.

This trope is a lazy workaround for a character’s hearing loss. If a character is an expert lip-reader, then the writer doesn’t need to deal with the realities of communication briers. This result doesn’t just give people the wrong impression about D/deaf and hard of hearing characters, but it causes writers to miss some potentially great storytelling opportunities.

All D/deaf people use sign language.

This trope may seem to contradict the previous one, but it doesn’t. I suspect that there is an assumption that one is an amazing lip-reader and a fluent signer.

Not all deaf and hard of hearing people know American Sign Language (ASL), let alone are fluent. There is a large array of communication methods used by people with hearing loss: ASL, Signed Exact English (SEE), Simultaneous Communication (SimCom), speech, cued speech, et cetera. The person’s choice of communication method is a very individual and personal one.

It’s not fair for anyone to assume that they  know what a person’s communication method is just because they have a hearing loss. Maybe they sign, maybe they don’t. This trope prevents people from thinking more critically andasking the person what communication method they prefer. These assumptions can lead to disastrous results in real life. (One of my friends had a sign language interpreter provided for her, but she didn’t know ASL.)

On a related note, not all deaf people (or all signers) are active members of the Deaf Community. Many are, but many aren’t as well. Once again, it’s a highly individual decision.

All D/deaf people are mute.

This trope is slowly disappearing, but it rears its ugly head occasionally.

One of the most famous deaf-mute characters of modern literature is Nick Andros from Stephen King’s The Stand. (Psst. He also fits the first trope. He’s a master lip-reader.) There are many more examples, particularly in older literature.

The problem? Pathological deaf-mutism is extremely rare. Some D/deaf and hard of hearing people choose not to speak vocally, but their silence doesn’t mean that they’re mute.

All D/deaf people are completely deaf.

Again, “stone deafness” isn’t common. It’s quite rare for someone to be completely deaf. Even people who are diagnosed as profoundly deaf have some hearing. (Funnily enough, I’m one of the extremely rare individuals who iscompletely deaf, but I’m the exception, not the rule.)

The importance of tropes and why we should care.

Even though movies, books, and television shows are…well, fictional, they shape people’s perceptions.

Tropes affect people’s assumptions about D/deaf and hard of hearing people. People expect them to be world-class lip-readers, stone deaf, and fluent signers. When people meet someone who doesn’t meet all these criteria, they’ll be confused and frustrated. “But I thought you’d be able to lip-read me!” they think. “They’re just not trying hard enough.” This can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings and friction.

These tropes don’t just affect the perceptions of people without a hearing loss. The pressure to be expert lip-readers can frustrate D/deaf and hard of hearing people. Even today, I feel a little guilty when I tell people, “No, I can’t lip-read everything you say,” and seeing the disappointment in their eyes.

D/deaf and hard of hearing people are amazingly diverse in their backgrounds, communication methodologies, and degree of hearing loss. If the media showed the diversity of the D/deaf and hard of hearing people, maybe a little bell would go off in someone’s head and they would realize, “They’re not all the same!”

The world’s a better place when we see all different ways of living life in fiction and real life.



About Author

Cristina Hartmann

Cristina Hartmann is a writer (also publishes sci-fi works under the pen name Victoria Halley) who likes to jump out of planes and read books (not at the same time). Cristina has a weakness for YA books featuring female protagonists who can wield a sword like nobody’s business. When she’s not writing, jumping out of planes, or reading, Cristina loves cooking, eating, and playing with fuzzy creatures. (Alas, she’s not a fish person.) She's the author of The Secret Value of Zero, a YA sci-fi dystopia.

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6 Comments

  1. Ugh, yeah. Even Switched at Birth — a show I love and am constantly urging everyone to watch — this trope exists. ALL the Deaf characters are amazing lip-readers. The show gives regular nods to the fact that lip-reading isn’t an exact science, but most of the time the Deaf characters read everyone’s lips no problem. :/

    • Life Skills Teacher on

      Noticed that did you? And how fluent signers tell people who are barely SimCom-ing that they are really good signers?

  2. Excellent post. The lip-reading thing shows up SO much and always makes me give major eye-roll. Also, I’m a hearing person and, when I took ASL classes in college, was really surprised to learn that a) ASL is its own language, not a signed version of English, and b) Deaf and deaf signify two different things. Like you said, the media tends to present all kinds of Deaf/deaf people and experiences as the same. Thanks so much for sharing a little of the realities and differences that exist!

  3. As a Deaf person, I think all these tropes are right on. I love Switched at Birth, but I do wish they would portray a more realistic picture of how challenging it really is to lipread even for champion lip readers. I also think that certain members of Daphne’s family learned to sign a little too quickly. Bay’s learning arc I did feel was somewhat more realistically done at least early on–it makes sense that someone dating a deaf guy would learn more quickly than the rest of the family! But others like Dad Kennish are too fluent now for someone who was still really stumbling around with their signing for quite a while earlier on.

    I suspect one of the reasons why so many deaf characters lipread so well (aside from the stereotyping, which I’m sure is a huge issue too) is that it can be a challenge to write scenes in which you are showing a realistic, accurate picture of how often a deaf person may have to ask someone to repeat, or to write things down without getting tedious for a person reading along. I have tried to do this in my own (very much unpublished) fiction and had people suggest to me that maybe I should make the character a better lipreader to get around that tedium. This might be why Switched at Birth has so many suspiciously talented lip readers among their characters, despite their generally good use of expert consultants from the Deaf community. But for people like me who are “in-between” lip readers (I lipread better than many Deaf/deaf people enough to get by in certain situations, but you can still certainly find some who are much better than me, usually hard of hearing people but sometimes people who hear as little or less than I do) it means that I pretty much never meet a character who has lip reading skills that correspond roughly to my level of skill. And it’s at least as rare to find deaf characters who don’t really lip read much at all, despite there being many deaf people like that in real life.

    But although I recognize it’s hard from a narrative perspective to “get it right” without becoming tedious in how often you have to have your character ask for repetition, I really wish more writers would make the effort to find a way to hit that balance. Without copping out by making every deaf character a top-level lipreader. I haven’t figured out how to do it yet myself, but if I ever do get back to my (badly neglected) writing, I do intend to try.

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