This One Weird Thing: Living with Deaf People
I know a lot of weird things. This column explains why.
by Christa Weiss
I never quite expected my college would be as crazy as it was, mostly because I didn’t really think about it. I needed to go to college and wanted an art degree that wouldn’t land me in a cardboard box. Even though I got a scholarship to go to school in New York City it was still cheaper to stay in my hometown. I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology because it was a good school and I saved myself a lot of debt. It was fine, but it certainly wasn’t normal. I didn’t really realize it until much later.
RIT was an art school, that was also a tech school that also, for reasons beyond my understanding, shared a campus with NTID, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. This meant that in addition to having their own classes, the deaf students shared classes with the hearing students, with the help of sign language interpreters. We interacted with deaf students on a daily basis, did class projects together and shared dorms with them. The deaf students would be paired in rooms together, but each floor was a mix of hearing and deaf.
It was…um….well…it certainly happened.
The thing most people don’t really understand, is that deaf people are very loud. Like, really loud. Like, shut the fuck up-what-the-hell-are-you-doing-in-there-its-5am-oh-wait-you-can’t-hear-me-yelling-but-feel-like-I’m-justified-anyway, kind of loud.
This is because, by no fault of their own, they just couldn’t hear what they were doing. They did things like slam doors, blast their music at ridiculous volumes to feel the vibrations and have loud raucous sex, every second of every day…all the time.
The sex was crazy and loud and annoying, but all be damned if it didn’t sound like they were having a great fucking time.
Good on you deaf people, but oh man, do you make terrible roommates.
Occasionally, we’d get put on group projects with deaf students, which proved to be frustrating and difficult for everyone. We’d usually communicate via instant message or writing on a piece of paper. It seemed easy enough, but what no one really realizes is that ASL (American Sign Language) is not a direct translation of English. Because it would be insane to try to spell out every single word, there is a different hand-sign for everything, except for proper nouns. In that way, it’s almost like Chinese. ASL doesn’t really use connecting words or verb tenses. So, while the words that they were spelling were English, the way they wrote was closer to shorthand.
The communication problems were no one’s fault. It was an interesting learning experience, but holy shit, it was a pain in the ass. An enlightening pain in the ass.
The part that I never expected is that deaf culture, is like…a thing. A group with its very own language and way of expressing itself, with rules and norms that I, and many others, could never quite grasp. In some circles there is even a stigma against getting cochlear implants, the surgery that can help cure some types of deafness. That’s how deep it ran. The deaf people I met didn’t really see deafness as a disability, they were proud. They acted very much like they were…French. Take from that what you will.
It’s a little difficult expressing what was like living so close to deaf people, because no one wants to hear things that aren’t positive about living someone with a disability. I can’t imagine how frustrating and shitty it must be to not be able to hear. A lifetime without ever hearing the sweet sounds of Lady Gaga would be devastating to me. So, know that what I am about to say is the truth, based upon my own experiences, while living for four years amongst a very large deaf population.
The deaf students didn’t really like us. And we really didn’t like them. That’s sucks, but it’s the way that it was.
I told this to one my friends. ‘Hey! My aunt’s deaf!’ he replied.
‘…and she’s a total bitch.’
So if anything, know this: It’s not just me.
The sign language interpreters were another breed altogether. I’m not sure exactly what drives a person to be an interpreter, but much like the nude figure models in my previous article, they were basically a bunch of insane people. Spacy, artsy, hippiesh types. A lot of them were looking at interpreting as a second career, when I can only assume, the whole vegan dirt farm thing didn’t work out. If these people were the only hearing people the deaf ever interacted with, I could totally understand why they didn’t like us.
Our school had a cycle of regular interpreters, so you’d always see the same people. The unanimous, RIT favorite was a guy we called Santa Claus, because, well, he looked exactly like Santa Claus. A plump old man, with long white hair and a white beard. Aside from that, he seemed relatively normal, until, this one time, I saw him in a skin-tight woman’s corset…yeah.
The student union at RIT occasionally showed movies in one of their empty auditoriums. One Halloween, they brought in the local cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to perform during the movie. I went with a few of my friends. Dressed up, excited and probably a little drunk, we walk into the auditorium. A gasp. Stunned silence. Santa Claus, the interpreter is standing on stage, dressed as Frank’n Furter, the main character of the movie.
Santa Claus in fishnets, high heels, a full face of makeup and a corset.
Not the Grinch, but Old Saint Nick himself, was the one to ruin Christmas that year for me…and every year after that. I’ll have the same image creeping into the back of my brain, every holiday season, until I die.
You have to give Santa credit though, the man did his job and he had a sense of humor about it. Being an interpreter isn’t exactly easy either.
Whenever there was a school function we needed interpreters. On really big events, with thousands of people, RIT used interpreters, those giant video screen Jumbotron things, and typists to close caption the events, in case you were too far back to see the interpreters sign. Every now and again, a comedian would come through. Said comedian would then proceed to fuck with both the interpreter and the typist, as much as humanly possible. Comedians can’t help it, it is in our nature. Every single comedian will absolutely do this, without fail.
John Stewart performed at RIT a few years back and spent about a half an hour of his set, just trying to get the typist to say something back to him. Problem being, the typists and interpreters aren’t allowed to react. If they do, they get fired. But, let’s be realistic. While I did feel bad for the typists, it was pretty f-ing hilarious.
So there you have it! Living with deaf people! It was a thing that happened! It was weird! A lot of it makes me sound like an asshole! Just remember, I’ve paid my dues.
After seeing your favorite childhood holiday character in dressed up full fetish gear, you’re really never quite the same.
…and my hope, beyond hope, is that by writing this publicly, that I can finally get the RIT Alumni Association to stop asking me for money.