There's a misconception that lipreading is just like reading a book. You look at the mouth and read, right? Actually, no, lipreading is not about “reading” the shape of the lips. It's far, far more complicated than that.
When I lipread, I catch every fifth word or so. I queue them up in my mind and guess the rest by inventing possibilities that fit facial expressions, body language and approximate number of syllables. Sometimes there are a couple of possibilities, and I hold both in my mind, waiting for it to become clear through subsequent conversation, which is correct.
While I'm doing this, collecting possibilities and sifting through them all, I need to keep the conversation going. So I copy the facial expressions of the speaker and nod and say “mmm” and “yep” … as appropriate. If I don't do that, the speaker stops, and we haven't gotten anywhere.
It can take a minute or two after the speaker finishes for me to understand what was said. Sometimes though, I get to the end and realise that none of the possibilities work. The whole thing just doesn't make sense. And then I have to say, “Sorry, can you go back to the start?”
And you might wonder, why were you nodding and smiling and saying yes all along when you didn't understand? Because that’s how lipreading works. It's the only practical way to do it.
As you can imagine, this is incredibly hard work. I can lipread for an hour a day, tops. After that, fatigue sets in. And if I go too far, pushing myself for three hours, I am WIPED afterwards, and my head pounds. It can take me days to recover.
I learnt to lipread as a child before I ever learnt to sign. I had headaches almost every day I went to school, but not during holidays. I couldn’t understand why. The doctors called them “tension” headaches, but I didn’t feel tense. I didn’t figure out until I was eighteen and finally learnt to sign that they were caused by lipreading. I remember the first time I sat with a group of friends signing and thinking, oh … this is why people like socialising.
Because I was a competent lipreader, people were often surprised when they found out I was deaf: “You’re amazing! You communicate so well. No one would ever know you are deaf!” They meant it as a compliment, and it wasn’t until later that I understood why I felt so uneasy about it. In congratulating me for passing as hearing, they were inadvertently telling me there was something shameful about being deaf, that I should be proud of hiding it so well. The compliments served to make me feel I needed to be amazing, as if it were a game to prove I could understand anything in any situation.
This arrangement was very convenient for those around me. By having me step neatly into the role of competent lipreader, they set it up (perhaps unintentionally) so that they would not need to deal with my deafness — the part of me that is different. The entire burden of communication rested with me.
When I learnt sign language, our teacher had us go into shops in groups, signing to each other and communicating with the hearing, non-signing shop assistants only through signing and mime. This experience was a revelation. For the first time, instead of trying to be super-alert to all the possibilities, trying to guess the correct volume of my voice for the situation, trying to make sense of the facial expressions of a total stranger, I could simply relax and be me. I pointed to the item I wanted and watched them figure out that I was pointing instead of speaking because I’m deaf. I saw understanding dawn, and bit-by-bit, we worked out a way to communicate. Eventually, I left the store with the item in the colour and size I wanted, without having said a word. Without having lipread a single word.
What happened here? The shop assistant and I shared the burden of non-standard communication. She took on some of the guesswork and I took on a lot less of it. The experience was amazing. I hadn’t known communication was stressful until it wasn’t. Instead of trying to “pass” as hearing, I was simply being me, deaf.
These days, I don’t try to hide my deafness. Instead of lipreading while everyone else continues as normal, I ask people to communicate visually with me, like those shop assistants, or to write with me using pen and paper. Then, just as I’m becoming too tired to continue, they are too.
Asphyxia is an artist and writer with a social conscience focusing on inclusion of those considered different. For those who want to alleviate the lipreading burden, she offers a free online sign language course. To sign up and see her other artworks, click here.