Hearing With Your Eyes

Rachel Kolb, who reads lips, describes it as an “inherently tenuous mode of communication”:

Even the most skilled lipreaders in English, I have read, can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said. I believe this figure to be true. There are people with whom I catch almost every word—people I know well, or who take care to speak at a reasonable rate, or whose faces are just easier on the eyes (for lack of a better phrase). But there are also people whom I cannot understand at all. On average, 30 percent is a reasonable number.

But 30 percent is also rather unreasonable. How does one have a meaningful conversation at 30 percent? It is like functioning at 30 percent of normal oxygen, or eating 30 percent of recommended calories—possible to subsist, but difficult to feel at your best and all but impossible to excel. Often I stick with contained discussion topics because they maximize the number of words I will understand. They make the conversation feel safe. “How are you?” “How’s school?” “Did you have a nice night?” Because I can anticipate that the other person will say “Fine, how are you?” or “Good,” I am at lower risk for communication failure.

Update from a reader:

There was a lot that I recognized in Kolb’s article.  I am deaf but lipread very well.  My husband and daughter are hearing and probably 95% of my interactions are with hearing people. My lipreading (which I call speechreading, which seems more accurate since I’m looking at much more than lips) is good enough that people frequently don’t realize that I’m deaf.

The main thing I wanted to comment on re: Kolb’s article is her seeming rejection of the Deaf community.  Why not be bi-cultural?

I have found that I need regular injections of effortless communication via sign language to be a truly effective speech reader.  Speechreading requires a level of relaxation and ease, and before I learned ASL and became part of the Deaf culture/ community, I would regularly have meltdowns where the sheer EFFORT got to me.  Where I became just too frustrated to sit back and let it all wash over me and make sense of it all.  Once I became fluent in ASL and started regularly socializing with other Deaf people, those meltdowns stopped.  Interacting with Deaf people became my recharging time, and I then was a much more effective speech reader overall.

Now I have my daily interactions (spoken, with occasional ASL) with my husband and daughter; my daughter’s (hearing) friends; my (hearing) friends and extended (hearing) community; and all of the regular everyday interactions we must have with grocery clerks and the like.  And then I also meet up with Deaf friends at regular intervals to just relax and communicate without a second thought.

I understand her fear that you must choose one community or the other, but that’s not the case.  With her background, she must know ASL.  There are plenty of interesting Deaf people out there, and she doesn’t need to limit herself to frustrating, effortful interactions.  By the same token, she doesn’t have to limit herself to the Deaf community.  You can be a part of both worlds.