Yesterday, while I drank my regular lunchtime latte, two beautiful young women were communicating with sign language a few tables over. Their hands moved fluidly through the air, their silver bangle bracelets clinked. The rhythm of their connection was reverberating through the music on the speakers; it was beautiful. I was reminded of the eight months when I was twenty that I spent working for the Ohio Relay Service, and of some of my deaf co-workers and friends during that time.
The janitor, who was also married to the executive director of the relay service, was profoundly deaf. Unlike his wife, who had mastered the art of speaking without hearing, he had to communicate with those of us who didn’t know ASL with endless pads of paper and blue gel ink pens. This was before every one had a cell phone with texting capabilities or a laptop that could fit into a thin satchel. Actually, this was before every one (anyone?) had a cell phone at all.
One day, on my way into the center for my shift, my friend the deaf janitor (of course I’ve forgotten his name) was smoking beside his huge silver pickup. The stereo in the truck was blaring some pretty heavy-duty hardcore rap and the bass must have been turned all the way to the right. He saw me looking at him quizzically and smiled. Stamping out his cigarette, he pulled out his pad of paper and blue pen and wrote furiously. After tearing off the sheet, he handed the note to me, which read: “You think I’m crazy, but if I turn on bass all the way, I can almost hear the music. Cool, huh?!”
I wonder how many deaf folks use the service now. When I worked there, the internet was still just a clumsy toddler. Deaf teenagers were just starting to use instant messaging and chat rooms to communicate with their hearing friends and faraway relatives. I often relayed calls from students from one of the state’s deaf boarding schools. They were usually ordering late night pizzas, or calling to ask their parents for extra spending money. Other common callers were newly hearing impaired grandmother calling their children. Their new handicap bothered them, and they usually overcompensated by yelling as they typed into their clunky TTY systems.
We weren’t supposed to ‘break’ and talk to the callers. Meaning, if a caller wanted to chat with us and not the party they were phoning we were to gently remind them of our purpose.
The operator does not interfere with conversations. Go ahead.*
When I gave my notice, I started interfering a tiny bit, but only if I was asked to. Once, a young deaf woman talked with a hearing man that she was falling in love with. Her words, flying across my terminal, were clever and charming. Her potential suitor laughed at all the right moments, and I tried to include adjectives in my description of the small conversational noises he was making.
(Laughing warmly) (Sighing) (Clears his throat, but not impatiently)
When they hung up with each other, the young deaf woman typed directly to me:
Did he sound like he liked me? I don’t know if you can tell, or if anything was obvious in his voice…is that possible? Go ahead.
If I wasn’t quitting, I would have been obligated to say: The operator does not interfere with conversations. Go ahead. But I was leaving, and I felt a heart-string pull to make a connection, to make this girl’s evening, to make her feel good. To tell her the truth.
Absolutely! He sounded very happy to hear from you, to hear that a deaf person was calling. I think he likes you. Definitely. Go ahead.
We chatted for a bit back and forth, and I when I left work that night I felt a warmth growing in my chest. What an interesting place to work that was.
*”Go ahead” was what we typed or said to indicate that the phrase or question was complete. The party could reply, and the operator would type or speak the words that the other person wanted to hear.