How to Write Deaf or Hard of Hearing Characters
by Melanie Ashford
Choosing to include characters with disabilities in your speculative fiction is an excellent thing to do, but you’ll need to do your research. A poorly written hard of hearing character will do much more harm than good, and you run the risk of ostracizing a lot of your readership, whether they relate to deafness or not. Follow our tips to ensure you’re writing hard of hearing characters the way they deserve to be written.
The hard of hearing often find themselves subject to stereotyping, such as being portrayed as unintelligent or old. Plenty of people lose their hearing at an early age, and premature hearing loss is not as rare as you might think. Consider having a younger character with hearing loss, whether that’s a working-age adult, a child, or even a teenager.
It’s crucial to remember that there are many different types of hearing loss; from hard-of-hearing to deafness, and even Deafness. Make sure you research the type of hearing loss or cultural group you intend to use, thoroughly. For example, if someone is deaf the term refers to the loss of hearing, but for the Deaf community, the term Deaf refers to a culture.
Avoid depicting your hard of hearing characters as unintelligent. Hearing loss has no direct bearing on intelligence, although access to education might be a factor.
To better illustrate my point, I am a 30-year-old woman, and I have worn hearing aids since I was 26. I have a glowing academic track record and intend to get a doctorate. Hard of hearing people are not always old, and we’re not unintelligent.
Plan How Hearing Aids or Implants Work In Your Book
One of the best things about including hearing aids or cochlear implants in your book is the fun you can have creating fantastical or sci-fi versions of them. In a fantasy world, your character might use charms or rune stones; and in a sci-fi world, you can develop AI or even cyborg elements.
Try to stay true to the purpose of hearing aids in that they amplify sound and provide the user with more clarity. Hearing aids don’t work in the same way as glasses. With the right optical prescription, you get full 20/20 vision again, but hearing aids won’t give you perfect hearing. Someone with hearing aids is still subject to background noise, may still be unable to hear certain things, and may well rely on lipreading.
If you’re referencing cochlear implants, please be aware that many Deaf people consider these controversial and unwanted.
Lipreading and Sign Language
The majority of hard of hearing people use either lipreading, sign language, or some combination of the two. However, not all of us do and having a hard of hearing character who can neither lipread nor sign is acceptable. Perhaps they have recently lost their hearing and are still learning alternative methods of understanding speech.
If you do refer to lipreading or sign language, make sure you research thoroughly first. Talk to people who use ASL, and watch videos on YouTube. Making up your own fictional sign language is fun, but it’s essential to understand regular sign language first. Don’t forget about the many different forms of sign language in use, such as British Sign Language (BSL), AUSLAN, or International Sign Language. For members of the Deaf community, sign language is a cultural distinction.
Lipreading relies on faces being unobscured, and a hard of hearing person will need a clear view of the entire face. It’s impossible to lipread from behind or side-on, and the whole face is required, not just the mouth. Don’t forget to think about how your lipreading character will understand speech in the dark.
Some cultures still harbor some unpleasant social stigma towards the deaf and hard of hearing. Throughout history, we have been persecuted, mistreated, and even driven out of society. Consider whether this is something you want to explore in your book.
You can also turn this trope on its head and have a deaf or hard of hearing person revered for their disability. However, you may want to discuss this with the community in-depth first. Many of us are uncomfortable with this representation and prefer to be represented as regular, everyday people.
Many members of the Deaf community consider deafness and signing cultural differences, and not disabilities. If you’re writing a character who identifies as Deaf, they may have these views.
Don’t Forget About Background Noise and Other Effects of Hearing Loss
For someone like me, background noise is partly my worst enemy and partly my best friend. While having a conversation, anything in the background works to obscure sound, and my hearing is less reliable as a result.
However, in a silent room, I will begin to suffer tinnitus, which is maddening and impossible to shift once it starts. As I write this alone in my apartment, I have music playing quietly, so I don’t get tinnitus.
Write Hard of Hearing Characters as Normal, Rounded People
Above all, write your hard of hearing characters as well-developed, rounded characters, the same way as the rest of your cast. They shouldn’t exist in your story because they’re deaf; neither should you toss a hearing disability into a character for the sake of it. Both the disability and the person should be researched and developed with the same care as any other character.
Get Sensitivity Readers
If you’re writing a deaf or hard of hearing character, you need to run your work past sensitivity readers. Ask on Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook groups for people with similar hearing disabilities to read through your story and offer suggestions. It’s essential to get more than one sensitivity reader, and you’ll want to make sure someone who uses the same tools as your character (e.g., hearing aids) reads your work.
Writing hard of hearing, deaf, or Deaf characters doesn’t have to be a minefield; it just requires some thought.
Mel is a hard-of-hearing writer from Wales, UK. She lives with a French Bulldog and a tortoiseshell cat. @ashford_mel