Sketch of an alert rattlesnake with forked tongue and active rattle. The text says Passing the Rattlesnake Test

Passing the rattlesnake test


I can pass as hearing. With good lighting, low background noise, and a good night’s sleep I can follow and participate in small group conversations like any hearing person. Like nearly all deaf/hard of hearing (HoH), my ability to listen, speechread, and follow conversations decreases quickly with less light, accrued listening fatigue of the day (see post on How much listening is too much?), more background noise, additional people with quick back-and-forth banter, or unfamiliar accents (see post on Understanding unfamiliar accents). I’m also pretty good at bluffing. 

<garbled speech>
… nod and smile
<garbled speech>
Ho! The group is laughing now. Laugh a little  but not too much
<garbled speech>
nod and smile …

I don’t sound as deaf as I am because of years of speech therapy to teach me how to pronounce sounds that I can’t hear. The message speech therapy delivers is that the deaf/HoH folks should work hard to sound as hearing as possible. The burden is on the disabled person to assimilate rather than for hearing folks to tolerate deaf accents (see post on Eloquence is Overrated). Until I met other deaf/HoH folks in graduate school, I bought into that myth. I worried a lot about how I spoke, and my own internalized ableism fueled the myth that if I just worked hard enough nobody would know about my deafness. I could overcome my disability. My view on speech has changed over the years and I now find deaf accents wonderful/familiar/comforting. Though I will admit to still having some worries about my speech when I give high-stakes presentations —that internalized ableism is a tough beast to tame.

So, the combination of my slight deaf accent, excellent bluffing skills, and the privilege of being able to follow well-lit conversations with low background noise may be why people sometimes seem to either doubt my declarations of my deafness or underestimate my degree of hearing loss. Most of the time I don’t really care how my hearing is judged, but every now and then folks decide to call me out for what they perceive as inconsistency between my acting like a hearing person and my statement of my deafness — they will say “You don’t sound deaf”, or they will even try to test my hearing. Their nosy and inappropriate questions remind me of a hearing test that I failed the summer before my senior year of college.

I was hired by a mining company to participate in secondary gold exploration in northeastern Nevada. We lived and worked in a camp several hours from the nearest town. My field partner and I were hired to collect and log the rock cuttings (broken bits of rock produced by drilling) from various prospects within the claim.  If we saw some promising cuttings, we sent them off to be assayed for their gold content.  The mining company was hoping to find some high-grade Carlin-type disseminated gold that would make it worth setting up a mine in this remote high desert locale. Spoiler alert: We never did find good enough gold at that location. But the company paid us well for that summer of exploratory work. This job meant that my field partner and I got to hike around in the rattlesnake infested high desert every day to retrieve cuttings from the drill sites. The drillers would move the rig every week or so to a new site that we had previously marked for sampling. I mentioned to my co-workers that I couldn’t hear rattlesnakes and ask them to warn me if they heard a rattle when we were moving though the brush. I also took care to stomp the ground when I ventured someplace craggy where rattlesnakes might lurk. While I knew that rattlesnake bites were treatable, I didn’t relish the idea of an emergency 2+ hour drive to the nearest medical facility.

After one long day, I was in camp and standing around chatting with my co-workers (my field partner and the camp cook) and suddenly their eyes opened wide and their mouths formed startled “O”s. They were stunned and clearly were no longer listening to whatever fascinating and captivating story I was talking about at the time. 

“Look behind you!”

I turned around and 5 inches from my face was a writhing burlap bag.  The bag was moving in all sorts of directions consistent with a bagged and very angry snake. 


The drillers had decided to test my hearing loss and caught a rattlesnake in the bag. They wanted to see if I really wasn’t able to hear the snake. While I was babbling away, they snuck up behind me and held the bag inches from my head waiting for my reaction.

I learned a couple things from this. #1 Never trust drillers. #2 This experience also taught me that my lived experiences aren’t appreciated by most hearing people and some of them won’t trust my own assessment of what I can and can’t do. Sometimes they will test me to see if I’m ‘for real’. “Can you hear me if I cover my mouth?” Sometimes they will doubt my abilities. “You can’t accept this job because it involves visiting construction sites with heavy equipment that you won’t hear.” Sometimes, they will presume what accommodations I need without asking me. “Zoom has auto-captions, so I figured you were all set.” It is no wonder then that sometimes it is easier for deaf/HoH not to disclose their deafness and thereby avoid dealing with inappropriate responses. If we just work hard enough, we can pass for hearing and no one will know or ask anything.

But not disclosing my deafness isn’t safe for me. Not disclosing and working hard to pass as hearing is harmful to me in that I’m doing a lot of work just to stay in place and that impedes my ability to thrive. Just like I benefit from my field partner calling out to me when they hear a rattle, accommodations in my academic career allow me to participate more fully and avoid both harmful misunderstandings and grueling listening fatigue. This rattlesnake-in-a-bag experience prepared me for an academic career where my colleagues, fellow data loving scientists, want to see direct evidence of my invisible disability.  

So, when I’m asked inappropriate questions about my deafness, I picture in my mind that writhing burlap bag. I’ve got this — after all, you are the one holding a bag with a pissed off rattlesnake.

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