Do Your Homework: on writing marginalized characters

Whenever I pick up a book that has a character with hearing loss, unless I know the author is either #ownvoices or has actual knowledge of my disability/culture, I proceed very cautiously. Why? For starters I have spent my entire life being well aware that “hearing” people do not understand hearing loss and most have preconceived notions on what it means to have a hearing loss, those notions being wrong. I have also read a few books over the years that made me want to scream with how badly hearing loss was presented.

So when a new book stumbles across my path, I am honestly not expecting it to get it right.

A new book, a romance in fact, with a deaf character was recently brought to my attention. I found it at my library so I picked it up (more on this later) and started reading.

By page seven I had thrown the book on my bed in disgust.

Without pointing to the specific book and author, because that’s not my intent here, let me share a few facts: 1) the deaf character was not identified as deaf when first speaking. 2) the deaf character lipreads almost perfectly. 3) the deaf character feels bad when others struggle to communicate with them.

None of the above are realistic. Add to that, the deaf character is sweet and innocent and perfectly content to live in their little deaf bubble without full access to communication.

Did the author do any research? Heck, the deaf character is signing while speaking, a nearly impossible task as the two languages have different grammar structures. The author even referenced some sign, and as far as I can tell, completely invented the motion.

This is all before chapter two.

And here’s the part that absolutely kills me: this book is readily available at a library. It’s published by a Big Five publisher. This book, with its wholly inaccurate portrayal is given a prime spot to be shared. Because in publishing no one stops and questions authors on their diverse material. Because in publishing some authors don’t take the time to do their homework and care about accurate portrayal.

Because this book helps continue the misassumption the world at large has about hearing loss.

A book like this makes my life harder. It continues to allow people to think I can understand them, or should understand them. It doesn’t give me respect for being a strong person. It doesn’t acknowledge my needs and educate.

It fails.

This book lays next to me as I type and I’m going to try and read more, maybe the deaf character’s POV will change my mind? (First paragraph is a screaming no) Maybe somewhere along the way it will redeem itself.

This has got to stop! Not just with hearing loss, with all marginalized groups. Authors everywhere enjoy writing about people different from them. Great! But don’t think that someone else is going to catch you if you mess up. This is on you. This is your job.

This book I have borrowed? It should be a comedic romance. Yet my blood is boiling and my stomach churning. There is nothing fun or romantic about this.

And here’s another interesting element: at no point on the cover or the blurb does it mention hearing loss. Now, I have my own stories where the hearing loss is a secondary factor and not needed there, but where’s the representation? Where’s the respect?

Nowhere.

My apologies to this author. I’m sure you’re a lovely person and a skilled writer. But if you, or someone who has written outside their lane like this, reads this, please, take a moment to think. Why did you write about my world? What was your goal? Because unless it was to piss us off, you failed.

I’ll say it again: You FAILED, because this isn’t a little, “Oh, how silly, they think we can all lipread like people hear, that’s funny.” This is something that lays insult on top of insult.

It hurts. And it helps make sure that others will hurt us as well.

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What You Can Learn From The Laurel vs Yanny Debate

For full discloser: I haven’t listened to the sound bite. I honestly don’t have to. Every day I hear things incorrectly, or differently, than other people. Every day I struggle to put the pieces together and guess at missing words or overall concept.

Hearing people listen to this amazed at how people hear things differently. Welcome to my world.

Seriously, this isn’t a fun game, this is reality. Even people with “perfect” hearing will hear things differently from time to time. Now add in a hearing loss. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine thinking someone’s name is Laurel and then find out it’s Yanny and feel like a complete idiot?

Because I’ve been there. Heck, I live there! Hearing loss is not a straight line, most of us lose higher frequency sounds first. I’ve mentioned this a few times but I’ll mention it again: my right ear can’t hear the “h” sound. It’s a complete gap of sound. Sometimes my brain is able to fill in the gap to identify the word, other times it can’t.

My hearing loss is also mostly genetic, it goes up and down, which means I’ll hear certain sounds clearer than others, leaving room for more misunderstanding.

Listen to the sound bite and have fun with it. But also take a moment to consider what it teaches. Hearing isn’t black and white, it’s filled with shades of gray and ranges of color. Not all of us have full access to all those ranges. Laurel vs Yanny might be a fun afternoon for you. It might lead to fights among family and friends.

It’s my life.

(One more point on the whole issue, from a person named Laura: The L and the R are the last two sounds acquired, and therefore the hardest (thanks Mom and Dad!). I’ve often said my name on the phone and the person responds, “Okay, Barb, how can I help you?” Now, granted, sometimes my tongue doesn’t work like I need it to, but I haven’t for the life of me figured out how I manage to make my name sound like Barb!)