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.