Silhouettes: Lip-reading

2020.08.16, by Ansel

Today was my second lip-reading patient in two consecutive days, and, only my third experience with a deaf patient. Even though we had visitor restrictions, his wife was there—I thought, ‘oh, he must not be able to communicate’—he was here for leg problems but maybe he couldn’t talk. And I was speaking to this woman, just letting the fact that she wasn’t wearing a mask glaze over me. I realized after her guy gave me his phone number—‘oh my god. He’s been reading her lips this whole time.

He spoke well, with a slight lisp, and he was signing the numbers as he spoke, and I turn to his wife and ask—“H, has he been reading lips this whole time?” She laughs and explains that’s why she’s been repeating everything I’ve said.

I practically tear my mask off my face, turn to him, and talk to him like a fucking human being. “I am SO sorry. I had no idea you were reading lips. This—”—I pinched my mask with two fingers—“has probably been a piece of crap to ya, huh?” He laughed and took it in good stride.

We chatted. He’s a teacher at a local school for the deaf. They had their wedding planned last month, but had to cancel it due to the pandemic. His fiancée started crying. “I still love you,” he told her.

I don’t know how it turns out like this, and it always does, but—we started shooting the shit. About the masks: “Nobody believes me when I tell them I’m deaf. ‘You speak too good!’ The other day a cop pulled me over and said, ‘If you’re deaf then how are you driving?’ Rolled his eyes—“Would you rather a blind man? Dumbass.” His wife was a bit embarrassed that her husband called a cop a dumbass in front of me but I didn’t mind. It is all bullshit. The crap that people have to put up with.

“How long have you been working here?” “Ah, two years, maybe three.” Only three?” “What, do I look like an old fart?” He threw his head back and burst out laughing. I’d gotten him a pillow and adjusted the bed for him, making sure to flicker the lights off whenever I entered the room so he would know I was coming (because the fuck will knocking do for a deaf guy?).

Even though I was talking to him, his wife was still trying to answer him, and he looks at me, and teases, “Hey, even though you’re talking directly to me, she still keeps answering everything.” “Well she’d been answering things for you all night—probably a reflex to be your secretary by now.” We were having fun at her expense, and it was clear he enjoyed the opportunity. Being treated like a human being and not as if he were retarded. If he ever closed his eyes to yawn I made sure to pause before continuing, and since I knew he was deaf I focused more on gesture. (His wife was a relatively gestureless person, so when I first spoke to her, I toned down my theatrical faggotry.) That must've been why he thought I’d worked for a decade (two thirds of my life up to that point) or so. Must’ve interacted with a lot of deaf patients, he thought.

Nah. I told him—

“Look—next time you see someone like me wearing a mask—hail me down, I’ve semi-decent peripheral vision—I don’t wanna be that hearing jackass, OK?”

He laughed again.

The whole time he’d been in there—with anyone else—they’d just talk to the wife, and he’d just sit there, not knowing what the fuck was going on but just sitting there, and accepting it, more crap to add to the plate. Whatever. He would look to be polite but internally his eyes must’ve been glazing over.

When it was time to discharge him he was wearing a mask, had to, he was in the hallway waiting for his wife in a wheelchair. She was using the restroom while he held her purse. “Nice purse,” a passing masked tech said. He nodded and raised his hand a little pretending he knew what the hell the tech just said to him. I lowered my mask and pointed to the bathroom. “Ah is she in there? Wife’s in the bathroom?” “Yep, I’m just waiting for her.”

Even if it’s little things like that. Men have to talk. Whether you do that verbally or not…

Personally, it’s been easier for both me and Tolly to make eye contact with deaf people, being autistic. Deafies put a greater emphasis on expressiveness and nonverbal communication.

He and I both naturally ham it up a little—that’s what we get for being drama club queers—and when you speak to someone with clear body language, there’s no ambiguity in what they’re actually communicating.

Allistic ableds are honestly fucking shit when it comes to being clear, concise, and precise when it comes to communication, relationships, and so on. And that’s where the pressure and sharpness of eye contact comes from. It’s from our brains going, “What the fuck do they really want from us?”