Don’t sell me short

By Dr. Kathryn Woodcock

The other day, I encountered a peddler in my local fast food emporium. He wasn’t peddling alphabet cards, this one. He had handmade keychains. Like, who goes around with a bunch of loose keys in the pocket? So why would anyone buy one from a peddler, except out of sympathy. They were accompanied by a card proclaiming the peddler to be deaf and the keychains his own handiwork.

I was sitting there by myself, finishing my pop and reading the sports page, when one of the cards was thrust in my face. I looked at it for a few seconds, then made eye contact with the peddler. “You deaf?” I signed. Often, peddlers are hearing people banking on the public’s gullibility and pity. Sign to one of these, and he will beat a hasty retreat. Not this one. “Yes, you?” he signed back. Then we proceeded to run through the customary deaf culture conversational-opener script: where are you from, where did you go to school, do you go to the deaf club, who else might one of you know that the other might know. The keychains had been tucked away. As I began to take longing glances at my newspaper, we concluded our discussion, and he proceeded to another table to offer his trinkets. Happily, however, the manager soon appeared, with a note written on a piece of paper, asking the peddler to leave, in accordance with store policy. I was relieved. I didn’t want people to think I endorsed his peddling.

But aside from finding out the imposters, I have long since given up arguing with peddlers about peddling. They always feel supremely entitled to it. They would “rather peddle than be on welfare.” No matter that welfare is a legitimate safety net which, coupled with vocational rehabilitation and counselling, can help people get back on their feet. Furthermore, when a peddler begs, the beggee only knows that their money is desired, not that it is needed. I have heard of networks of ‘deaf’ peddlers in some cities, where the begging is just a cottage industry. At least Welfare attempts to verify financial need prior to making handouts.

No sooner did I arrive home when the local paper arrived with a letter to the editor about this guy. A local couple asserted that ejecting him from a restaurant was “not very nice”. They would henceforth take their burger business elsewhere. They assured the peddler that all people were not as mean-spirited as the restaurant manager. They asserted that everyone has the obligation to help the “less fortunate” to “better themselves” and “improve their self-esteem”. They wondered “where was the harm?”

At this point, I flipped my lid. Labelling us less-fortunate is exactly the kind of attitude that oppresses us. Flogging keychains in burger joints is “bettering ourselves”? Gee—I was working on a Ph.D., but maybe I will just whip up some bookmarks and head on down to Burger King. Where is the harm? As I sit there reading the business section, or revising a section of my dissertation, who notices that I am deaf? But there goes the peddler, drawing attention to himself. When I go to look for a job, and people know that I am deaf, the image of the peddler will be the salient deaf image in their minds. Which deaf person’s self-esteem is more important? Mine plummeted the instant the peddler walked in and started to flash his trinkets around.

I immediately faxed a letter to the editor in response, published a few days later, making many of these points and encouraging people to contact the Hearing Society to find out how to direct their financial support to improving access, not hand it out a loonie (Canadian dollar) at a time in fast food restaurants. Several employees at both local McDonald’s commented to me about the letter. I think they needed the moral support for their policy after the short-sighted “not nice” letter appeared. Even more so, I think they might have been concerned about throwing out a friend of mine (I am avery regular patron).

That is exactly the problem. People see deaf people as all one lot. If one is a peddler, all are peddlers. If one is an unfortunate, dependent innocent, then all are. These kinds of limits on expectations keep deaf people from aspiration, opportunity, and achievement.

I’ve talked with many ALDAns who have said that their earliest and sometimes only memory of meeting a deaf person was a of a peddler, and this was a depressing recollection when later confronting their own deafness. Do we consciously or unconsciously fear that deafness means we will plummet to passing out alphabet cards in the mall? Does fear of becoming like that prevent any of us from learning to sign? For many years during my progressive hearing loss, I thought deafness was beneath me. Who would I talk with? I don’t know any of those people. Look how I was achieving! Not like them. How did I know about them? From seeing peddlers. Luckily I did meet deaf people who were professionals, like me, and learned that knowing how to fingerspell and selling fingerspelling cards were not cause and effect. And of course I am now proud to be able to muster fairly fluent ASL when called upon it to defend the honor of deafness in challenging peddlers on my fast food turf.

The second-last deaf peddler I passed was a very dirty man sitting on the sidewalk on Yonge Street in Toronto, near the corner where all the tourists go. He had a hat in front of him and a small hand-lettered notice. “Lost my hearing in 1990 and cannot work.” If this is true, of course, it is tragic. Tragic not that he became deaf, although nobody is really ever prepared and few lives are made simpler and easier by it, but tragic that he could not see a future with deafness. Did past encounters with peddlers lead him to conclude that this was his deafened fate? I didn’t challenge that peddler in sign, of course.

The “went deaf in ’90” claim is the perfect dodge for “why don’t you sign, then?” questions. If I had thought he had an address, I would have sent that man an ALDA News subscription. There is no need to give up. ALDAns learn that deafness is often a practical frustration, but once we get through adjusting to deafness and accepting it, we can do anything except hear. We don’t need peddlers selling us short.