Playing Hearing: A Losing Game

M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz



Some of my friends, hearing and Deaf, have said that I am “privileged” to have intelligible speech and can’t understand why I have chosen to live a Deafer life—to not use my hearing aids any longer and to choose not to use spoken English with hearing people. 

“If I could talk, I would!  It would be so much more efficient, just seems easier” one Deaf friend says. 

“Why don’t you use your voice anymore?  You have such good speech.  Now it is harder for me to understand you,” a speech therapist in my county program tells me. 

“Your voice is always understandable, and sounds almost normal.  I don’t know why you would choose to sign when the hearing world is so much bigger than the world of signing,” a hearing colleague.  

They just can’t seem to understand why I would “reject” that part of myself.  But that’s just it; I am NOT “rejecting” my hearing self.  Rather, I am embracing my Deaf self. 

See, I have been that hard of hearing guy who caters to hearing bosses, supervisors, coworkers, and anyone else, really.  I have tried to be as hearing as I could for nearly a decade.  And through the past decade I have come to a surprising realization—no matter how “close-to-hearing” I am, I will never be accepted as one of them, only a sad, broken, facsimile of someone whole.  Because to them, someone with a “hearing loss” is “hearing-impaired,” or, less-than-hearing.  And when we try to be like them, we are reinforcing our brokenness by the very act of pretending to be whole. 

I wanted so badly to be “normal.”  I tried everything I could think of—I wore two hearing aids, grew my hair to cover my ears, tried not to look like I wasn’t confused when I really had no idea what people were saying, and even avoided signing friends.  I was as close to hearing as anyone hard of hearing ever could be—and I was miserable—and I was alone.

I want you to understand that “playing hearing” is more than just using amplification.  It’s more like being African-American and waking up each morning to put on makeup to hide my blackness to be more like white America.  It’s more like waking up as a woman each morning and hiding my feminine features, gluing on fake stubble and trying to blend in better with the “good ol’ boys” who chauvinistically dominate women in the work place.  Though those examples seem extreme, and even offensive to consider, that is something I did every day. 


Discriminated Against in DC:

It sounds great to say “I was a legislative assistant to a Congressperson in his DC office.”  But the way I got that job is an embarrassment to me now.  I had a hearing friend call for my required phone interview.  He could sign a little and we rehearsed in advance well enough that he could make is seem like he was me.  He did such a good job at “being me” that I was not even involved in my own interview all that much.  I sat there, like an idiot, watching “me” get my dream job.  Sure, my resume and grades and experiences were what won me the interview in the first place, but the embarrassment, the feeling of impotence, as I sat there stupidly wondering how “I” was doing in my own interview still hurts. 

There were a lot of little things that hurt about that year… when I arrived in DC and walked into the Office wearing a suit I could hardly afford, without a place to stay and without a friend in the city… when the secretary asked if she could help me and I spoke, in my own voice for the first time that I was the new hire here to start my new job… when she said, “there must be some mistake, I will have to talk with the Congressman; please take a seat.”… when I was assigned to a job I was not hired for, instead of handling tobacco law and water rights, I was the copy and errand boy… when I didn’t have interpreters for meetings… when I pretended to know what was going on… when they went to lunch without inviting me… when I was not rehired the next season, despite having done everything I was asked to perfectly…  when the Congressman said, “we are looking for someone who could more easily keep in touch with the constituents” (meaning hear on the phone)… when I came home again after changing my whole life around to get that job… when I spent that whole time trying my damndest to be as hearing as possible and still they rejected me…

Sadly, I didn’t give up playing hearing yet.

Lost in Law School:

People react with surprise and respect when I mention having gone to law school.  But there, too, I played the fool.  I used CART, captioning services instead of an interpreter, because I didn’t want anyone to know I “couldn’t hear.”  But it never worked right.  In law school, teachers generally used a Socratic Method of teaching—they would ask questions to various students whom would then lead the class with their answers.  Trouble is, the microphone, on the lapel of the teacher, could never receive the answers students gave.  Here is a little excerpt from a Torts class as an example:

PRFSR: “Ms. Douglass, can you please explain for us how you would determine whether there is a legitimate case for civil battery in this instance?”

STDNT: ….**inaudible**…. establish whether…. A duty…. **Inaudible** … **inaudible**… causality… But first (or butt first)… **inaudible** even particulate matter constitutes … **inaudible**….  ….  ….  (I’m sorry, I just can’t hear her at all.  Is she way in the back?) … **inaudible** in awarding…. **inaudible**… … … 

PRFSR:  Very nicely done Ms. Douglass.  You have clearly identified duty, breach, causation, and even damages in this case.  That is a perfect answer, and the type of clear legal analysis I hope to find in all of your blue books come semester’s end.  That’s all for today, read Manlove for Tuesday and I will pick the student least attentive to address the issues with the class.

This was how the whole of my law school experiences looked.  And, again, I wasn’t through playing hearing yet.

Deficit Thinking in Deaf Education:

I felt that I had failed in the hearing world of politics and failed in the world of law.  What was left for me?  Deaf Education?  Would I be free to explore my Deaf self as a Deaf human being in Deaf Education?

As it turns out, that was where I did discover my Deaf self, but after reaching depths of dysconscious audism I didn’t know was possible.  I was the only Deaf person working for this program at the time of my hire.  No one used ASL.  Everyone believed in TC or Sim Com, and I goose-stepped in line with the oppressors.  I came into my interview for a Deaf Education teaching position speaking English the whole time.  I spoke English to every staff person.  And wore my hearing aids to be more like them every chance I could.  I was well practiced in my role playing game and I was at the peak of my craft. 

Though I used only ASL in the classroom and shared Deaf culture videos with my students, and invited Deaf community members to the class on a regular basis, I still was trying so hard, though less consciously, to be hearing.  What kind of an influence does this kind of behavior have on developing Deaf children? 

Over the first couple of years at this, I slowly began to change.  For one, I stopped socializing with hearing staff persons entirely, I didn’t embrace my Deafhood, yet, by any means, but I began to reject my hearingness little by little.  Until one day, I entered a staff meeting without an interpreter, for the first time in three years, and I signed to everyone there that I would no longer allow them to host the county staff meetings in my classroom if they didn’t sign—moreover that I would no longer voice for them. 

“I always give you the luxury of 100% understanding in your primary language, and what do I get back?  Maybe 25% of that through an interpreter as you all speak English more than one at a time and leave me out.  Well, from now on, its ASL in here.” 

The meeting went on in sign (I wouldn’t call it ASL, by any means) the first time this had ever happened.  And finally I was fully involved!  I went further and told my whole staff of interpreters “in this room, you sign ASL or get out.  No more Sim Com.  No more voice and kinda sign… ASL or out.” 

Over the next several months, the interpreters improved in their signing skills, the students felt more empowered and equal and I felt as if I had made my first real contribution to my community.  I don’t remember when, exactly, but I haven’t even seen my hearing aids in months and no one comes into my classroom blabbing away in spoken English any more.  Students have mentioned the change.  Parents have mentioned an improvement in their children’s self esteem.  And those hearing teachers have shown me more respect than I have ever received as my former audist self. 

I have done a lot more since then to further the cause—to further cleanse this program of audism, but I am not nearly done.  There is still a great deal left to do, inside myself, and in my program here.  But the curtain has dropped on my little performance and I will no longer “play hearing” and cater to those who will never respect me for who I am. 

And to all those who think speaking English as a Deaf person is a privilege, let me respectfully disagree.  It is very, very hard to find your place in the world as an oral/aural hard of hearing person.  We are neither hearing nor Deaf.  We will never truly be respected and or accepted as equal to hearing when all we are is some broken version of them.  As an oral/aural hard of hearing person, I am, at best, “almost normal.”  As an ASL Deaf, I am something different, special, unique, interesting, beautiful, and, above all, NOT a sad broken version of them.  I am whole.

The more Deaf I am, the more respect, authority and independence I have.  The more Deaf I am the more at peace I am.  The more Deaf I am, the less audism I see in me.  And the more Deaf I am, the happier my life has been.  And the more Deaf I am, the truer to myself I am. 

I still carry the wounds of my life as an actor, but they have begun to fade as I have begun my Deafhood journey. 

Thank you to all of you in the Deaf Community who were here to help guide me toward Deafhood.  Without you, I may still have been playing a losing game.



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26 responses to “Playing Hearing: A Losing Game

  1. I’ve been intending to, for a while, to discuss my reasons why I don’t use my voice with random Hearing people or at work. Some of what you said, I can definitely identify with!

    • Dr. Grushkin,

      A hearing person, whom I had never before met, entered my room and, upon learning I was Deaf, when I handed her a pen and paper to write to me, asked me and my class if there was “someone else” she could talk to. . .

      My hard of hearing student responded, “Mr. H. is our only teacher and you know what, he is pretty smart and I bet if you just picked up that pen like he just asked you to, you two could get on just fine without you being all rude and everything.”

      Using every bit of self-restraint I could muster, I simply wrote, “the next time you meet someone outside of what you expect, try and remember that he/she is a human being with dignity and a great deal to offer the world and, as such, deserves your respect.”

      She wrote back, “My sincerest apologies…” and went on to ask about a student’s IEP.

      When she left it took a little time and attention to calm my student who was, in her own words, “fighting mad.”

      What lesson would the students and myself and, of course, this woman have learned had I been my old, hearing-wanna-be-self? I wonder. . .


  2. DeafArch

    Beautiful and hard hitting blog!!! I am glad you discovered your Deafhood after enduring all the struggles that hearing world and even you imposed on you. I can relate to you although I have consistently refused to use speech in a professional environment but I was equally guilty of trying to fit in with hearing counterparts by not complaining about the lack of interpreting services for meetings and even funeral(one for a co-worker). I looked back and realized that I may have reduced my dysconscious audism long before that but still had some at that time. I reflected back to that with a disgusted taste at myself for not allowing myself to be as a whole. I think you should write at least a short book about your experiences and you have the talent for that. I aspire to be a writer as I have personally written some fictional stories although unfinished, I written a list of story ideas that focus on the problem of audism and the Deaf protagonist experiencing struggles and success. If I ever develop a Deaf character who was formerly “hearing”, I would consult with you on that someday if you don’t mind. Again, powerful blog with smart selection of photos that exhibited sarcasm!

    Ashley Watson

    • Hello Ashley,
      Thank you so much for your flattering words. I enjoy writing very much and do, also, hope to one day pen a book worth publishing.
      Again, your comments are kind and leave me feeling good about my effort to share, good or bad, my feelings, thoughts, and experiences.
      M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz

  3. Charles Riley

    This is absolutely fascinating and an idea that I have been turning over in my head. You can bet I am returning to this as I ponder significance to me personally.

    • Hello Charles,
      Thanks so much for your words of support. Like I have said to others, whether or not we ever agree, the fact that we are engaging in a dialogue about issues, to me, is what makes blogging and vlogging worth it.
      Thanks again,
      M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz

  4. Pingback: Mr. Sandman’s Sandbox » Issues in the Deaf Blogosphere

    • Hello Mr. Sandman;
      Thanks for engaging in my blog with an open mind. I am glad that you found it interesting and, whether we ever agree on my conclusions, I am glad to have found your blog space as well.
      I look forward to reading more of your blogs.
      M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz

  5. Thank you for sharing your story.

    I wrote a blog post in response:


    • Hello (e;

      Thanks for engaging in a dialogue about my thoughts. I posted a comment on your blog in response to your response hoping to clarify a concept that, I fear, I left obfuscated in my original blog.

      I look forward to reading more of yours and sharing more of mine in the future.

      M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz

  6. Thank you for your clarification. As you know, everything we write will be misinterpreted.

    I wrote a response in the comment dialogue of my post. I appreciated your response. I think I understand where you are coming from now.

    I understand why you embrace Deafhood. I am glad you are no longer an actor. Exhausting, isn’t it?! Cut the crap, embrace who you are. Own it. And that is exactly what you are doing. Good for you.

    I have one question, have you completely stopped socializing or interacting with the hearing population?



    • Hello (e,

      Thanks for following up. I do enjoy this. It is QUITE exhausting trying to be something you are not; to be sure.

      Have I stopped socializing with hearing? In a word, no. Not by any means. But, what I have stopped doing is socializing on their terms to my own detriment. For example, my father and mother took an ASL class when I decided to stop wearing hearing aids. And, so, my whole family and I communicate better now than ever. Why? I stopped acting, pretending, getting by, and doing everything on hearing terms.

      Truly, I socialize MORE now with hearing people, because, whereas I used to nod along or laugh on cue, now I set more Deaf-friendly parameters and I am more involved, more respected, and more “normal.”

      Coming to understand one’s self as a Deaf human being, and reaching a level of Deafhood (the point where I am no longer the sum of my less-than-optimally-functioning body parts) does not mean a “rejection” of hearing people–not at all. It means I reject the notion that I must be, behave, speak, communicate, or live like hearing people to be normal. And I embrace the notion that I am free to be, behave, communicate and live as a Deaf person outside of the aforementioned hearing norms. (Perhaps think of it as a conversion–were I to become a Christian, for example, would not mean I automatically stopped communicating with my Jewish family; but they would have to come to terms with the new me and accept that I do not have to pretend to be them. Make sense?)

      Again, thanks for the dialogue.


  7. Thanks for your response. It makes perfect sense. I am going to use your story as an example to all of the “pretenders” I work with, if you don’t mind. It is a truly sad story. All that time wasted being something you are not!



    • Hello again, (e,

      While it was a sad start to my adult life, I like to think of it as a road to Deafhood. I am sharing it in hopes that my experiences will help others navigate this path a little easier than I did.

      To be quite frank, my life is not at all sad–not at all. . . I have a perfect, beautiful, amazing family. The most beautiful, intelligent and linguistically gifted wife imaginable, three Deaf daughters (each of whom is more incredible than I dreamed my children could be), a hearing son (who is possibly a superhero trapped in a six-year-old’s body). My parents have learned to sign a great deal and, in fact, two of my siblings have become interpreters. I have made deep and lasting friendships with members of the Deaf Community who have made immeasurable impact on my life.

      I have a graduate degree and love teaching at both the high school and college level.

      And, coming full circle on this point, I have come to value myself and appreciate my identity.

      (e, I hope that the joy I feel about having come to understand myself and my role in life is not lost in the sorrow of the earlier self I had to live with. The true story is one of pure joy now that I know the real me.

      As I have said a few times now, I appreciate this conversation–not only because it stimulates my thinking, but also because it forces me to more clearly articulate my feelings and experiences and, thereby, share more about my Deafhood journey with others.

      M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz

  8. Laura

    Your story is truly amazing! Of all the people I’ve met, you and Nikki have had the greatest impact on my desire to become more and more involved in the Deaf community. I struggled with understanding the culture and even accepting many parts of it, then I met your family and immediately found a love for everything the culture entails almost instantly. While I still have a lot to learn and more to understand, this has helped immensely in my journey to become a good friend of the Deaf. Thank you!

  9. patti

    excellent entry

    thanks for sharing


  10. moi

    Richard, thank you for your post! It inspired me to write again for the first time in a truly long time. My reflections about your post can be found here:

  11. The tone about Deafhood with civility and respect in your blog is reassuring.

    You got it.. Many others don’t.

  12. Tyler Lang

    My wife and I have a 3 year old son who has moderate bi-lateral hearing loss. We are currently doing everything possible to empower him so that he has the possibility of functioning in the hearing world. Obviously, when he gets older how and where he fits in will be largely up to him. But I guess I like the idea of providing that option. If he chooses to take a route similar to yours it will be because he embraced it, not because it was forced upon him. And if, one day, he tells me I need to learn ASL in order to communicate with him, then I will learn ASL.

    I would be very curious to hear your thoughts or suggestions for a Father in this situation.

    • Hello Tyler. This is possibly the most important question I have tried to answer in Deaf Education all this time. Let me answer your question by asking a couple of rhetorical questions. 1) Will choosing to learn to sign now harm your child? 2) Will choosing to learn to sign later be difficult for your child?
      1) I respect you for not wanting to decide for your child. That is beautiful as you wish for him to grow up free thinking. However, there is no harm in ilingualism–hearing people pay millions of dollars every year to learn ASL to enrich their lives, increase their hireability, and imrpove their chances of making friendships in different communities. There is never any detriment to their learning ASL and they are free to choose when to and when not to sign.
      2) Unlike in my situation, where i had a full use of language from birth and made a transition to ASL (look up Cummins’ research on language tansference) a hard of hearing child may not have developed English “fully” without access to sign. That being the case, it may not be as easy for him to start learning later, if he has a language gap earlier on. Does that make sense?
      If, as stated in my answer to question number one, we believe that there is great benefit to hearing people who learn to sign, how much MORE so, will that be important for a hard of hearing or deaf child?
      Finally, I am interested in finding better demographical research data on this, but i believe the odds of a hard of hearing child who continues contact with his/her hearing parents after having grown up increases substantially when the parents are fluent signers. Simply put, I lost contact with my family for a long time waiting for them to gain any measure of compitence in ASL so that we could more deeply communicate.
      I do NOT have all the answers–not by any means–but I promise you this: ASL will not take anything away from your child, will increase your abilities to communicate, increase his ability to learn and make friends, and, even if he doesn’t continue to sign as an adult, you will be at peace knowing you have provided that to your child to make sure he doesn’t get behind and feel lost growing up.
      Again, I can’t say I know everything, but i KNOW that ASL is a beautiful way for you all to grow together. And, if you and your wife and child start NOW, he will not be behind, and YOU both will also be able to keep up with him as he improves in signing abilities later.
      Best wishes to you and your child and if you need ANYTHING, the Deaf community, including myself and my wife (who is also a Daef Ed teacher and ASL professor) are here to help hearing parents learn.
      M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz

  13. I truly loved this article Mr. H. It touched my heart. I am also thinking of not “playing deaf” myself. Love to you!

  14. Hey Richard,

    I don’t know if you’d remember me, but we were at college together for a couple years awhile back. I found your blog through (e’s blog and was astounded to discover this was the same Richard I chatted with between classes! 🙂

    This is a well-written post and I appreciated learning about your experiences. I’d love to write a response on my own blog and am still chewing on your words.

    I just had a couple of questions. In your opinion, does someone who is hard of hearing absolutely have to choose between Deaf and hearing? Is it possible to be part of both worlds? Why or why not?

    I would love to hear your thoughts and engage in more dialogue if you are willing. Thanks for your time!

    And good to “see” you again! 🙂


    • Hello Lucy! I DO remember you from my old undergrad stomping grounds! I am glad to know that you are still on your Deafhood journey, examining, thinking, talking about what it means to be deaf,Deaf,hard of hearing etc.
      To answer your question–i have NO idea! ha. I will say only this: to me, the word Deaf is broad. I believe ANYONE who chooses to move in the Deaf circle with ANY hearing “loss” is welcome and we will all be there to help guide those hard of hearings as they make that choice. I am VERY much still part of BOTH WORLDS. and that makes me what? Still Deaf. With whom i socialize does not change my cultural identity. Being hard of hearing is like being half white and half black. Do we realy HAVE to choose which part of our family we like better? Of course not. However, not accepting yourself because of your skin color, choosing only to like your white family values more, or only socializing with your black family would be unhealthy to your psyche. My point is, being Deaf is NOT like “disbled” and being hard of hearing is NOT like being half disabled. We are simply a minority group with our own values, customs, language, and way of living. To avoid that “half” of yourself seems, to me, like avoiding half of your family because they are one color or another. Instead, because the hearing half of us is SOOOOO big, hearing are everywhere. Hearing people outnumber us by a landslide. Etc. It is EASY to find your hearing half everywhere–just turn on the TV and EVERYTHING is hearing. But you have to look for your Deafhood. Because we are few, we are harder to pin down. But, again, by virtue of your curiosity, you are on your OWN Deafhood path to discovering your identity. No matter HOW you choose to be, choose to be YOU for YOUR reasons and enjoy YOUR life. Does this make any sense?

  15. Thanks for your response, and it does make sense. However, evidentially, I’ve misrepresented myself (which is so easy to do on the internet – apologies!). I don’t consider myself to be on the road to Deafhood, as you say. I’ve tried – and failed at – that route many years ago. I found that I’m actually less myself when I try to convince myself that I’m either Deaf or hearing and I find it difficult to be wholly myself in either world. Truthfully, I feel pressure on both sides to conform – hearing expects me to be hearing, Deaf expects me to be Deaf. I suppose what I was really asking was, “Is there room within the D/deaf community for hard of hearing people to just remain hard of hearing without having to conform to the Deaf culture?” My past experience has taught me that the answer to that question is “no” and I suppose I was hoping the answer had changed. I’m not sure it has… has it?

    • maya mcleod

      Mr H, this is Maya M.I just want to thank you for being sooo instrumental in my life. I really appreciate all the time and energy you put in me. You are the reason I’m enrolled in college because I didn’t feel I could make it. It has been a struggle but worth it. I’m in my third year at Junior College and will transfer out next fall. Had you not stayed on me I would not have found myself. I never took the time to give you the thanks you’re due. I thank and appreciate you. I’m still learning to except my destiny. You taught me a lot about deaf and hard of hearing culture.

  16. Having just discovered this blog and am busily reading all its entries, I felt impelled to answer Lucy.

    In journeying to find where you fit in, you may experience veering back and forth and eventually finding a place between the Hearing and the Deaf sides.

    No one expects you to “conform” except to their own individual needs–one might prefer speaking, stressing your lipreading abilities, another might prefer visual communication, challenging your sign skills. You might eventually find one mode easier to master than the other; many HOH learn skills in ASL and still retain their Hearing or HOH identification.

    Culture is a multiphasic entity: how deeply you identify depends on many things. Sign skills is just one, although a major part. A deep respect and love for those in the culture is another. Appreciation for the uniqueness of the language and the visual nature of the world. Knowledge of the history and understanding how it affects its people today and even Hearing peoples’ attitudes. The more you know, the more you can appreciate. Much of this has little to do with your personal situation; but understanding it can help you to arrive at your place even if it is still not within the Deaf culture.

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