Deaf Perspective on Dinner Table Syndrome

~By Lee Jackson

Going to family gatherings has always been a mixed feeling for me as a Deaf adult.  I love my family and love seeing them, but at get-togethers I quickly want to leave because I am socially awkward around my hearing family.  Being the only Deaf person in the entire family can be difficult for me when it comes to communication.  As a child who grew up oral (learning to speak/lip-read), I have a Deaf perspective on Dinner Table Syndrome from family gatherings.

As a Kid

Deaf Perspective on Dinner Table Syndrome

It never really bothered me what was happening around me because I was just a kid who heard certain sounds and didn’t care about anything but playing with my cousins and close friends.  As I get older I would try to catch conversation as much as possible.  Often, however, the person’s mouth was either blocked by a person (usually a child) or by their own hand.  Then I would have to move on to another conversation in the room and start all over again.  I usually caught about 40% of what was said.  I had to fill in the rest assuming what they said.  Lip-reading at a family gathering is exhausting.

As a Teenager

When I became a teenager, I did my best to catch about 40% of what was said and would smile and nod like I understood what was happening.  Often I would start doing the dishes while everyone else was sitting and chatting. They would ask me to sit with them, but I would say, “Nah, I am almost done.”  When I did sit at the table, I would try to find a seat where I could see everyone when they were talking.  When there was something I did not understand, I would ask what was said.  I always got the short version.  Honestly I wanted to feel involved, but I knew I really wasn’t.  Some of my family members would check on me from time to time to see if I understood.  Over the years, I learned to let it go.  If I still wanted to know more, I would wait until everyone left and ask my mom.  She never once said, “I’ll tell you later” or “never mind.”  I remember many times I used to tell my mom to move her hand when she was talking.  She didn’t realize it was a habit of hers. 

In College

After high school, I went to a community college in St. Louis where there’s a Deaf program and met about 30 Deaf people on the campus. I learned a whole lot about who I am as a Deaf person and never once felt ALONE!  I was moved by the Deaf community because they were in the same position as me.  Many of them were left out by their families who did not sign.  There were a few with parents who signed or had a Deaf sibling.  Communication, however, was still oral when at family gatherings.  We would come back to school the following day and commiserate with each other.  “I hated it at home!  I just sat there bored to death not knowing what was being said.”

In a Relationship

My first Deaf boyfriend taught me a lot about the Deaf world, my rights as a Deaf person, and how to see the world from a Deaf perspective.  That was when I started to realize who I was as a Deaf person.  Before college, I was in one world.  The hearing world felt lonely, like I was the only Deaf person in the entire world.  When my boyfriend, then husband, and I went to our family gatherings, our families felt left out when we sat in the corner signing.  It was nice to have each other, but we were still separate from the hearing world. After my divorce, I met a Deaf man who came from a Deaf family.  Family gatherings were an entirely different experience seeing full communication at the table and knowing 100% of what was said!  I did not feel alone.  I felt like I belonged in this Deaf family.  I did not want to leave to go back home to my own hearing family.  I’m sorry if that hurts, but that is how I felt.  

In Adulthood: Current

Fast forward ten years when I met my current fiancé, who is a sign language interpreter.  He can talk to my family and sign to me.  He has no idea how much I appreciate him for being there for me.  I know he has my back when it comes to communication with my family.  He always tells them that it’s easy to learn ASL.  When everyone is talking and I do not catch information, he will look over to me to see if I understand.  If I do not, he will tell me what was said just so I feel “included” in the family.

I wish every day that my family would learn sign language.  It’s not too late.  When I was first diagnosed with severe hearing loss, the doctors recommended Central Institute for the Deaf (CID), they told my family it was best to learn to speak and not to sign.  CID did not seem to care about a Deaf child’s communication inclusion experience in the real world.  They are simply focused on how well each Deaf child can speak.  They do not realize how it affects these children in the long run.  I was not able to have a normal conversation just like other families.  I believe that it is important for all parents or guardians of a Deaf child to learn sign language.  This is my Deaf perspective on Dinner Table Syndrome.  They will thank you!


Additional Resources:


Deaf Thanksgiving: A New Tradition

Dinner Table Syndrome and Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Dinner Table Syndrome Impact: Lack of Access to Communication


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MT & Associates, LLC – By Pearl Photography

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