Unless I am surrounded by other Deaf people and we are using our hands to communicate in sign language, Deafness is a hidden disability. No one knows you're deaf until they try to speak with you and get no response. People can't tell you're deaf until you whip out a paper and pen and start writing to them. Unless your hearing aid is visible, they don't know you're deaf. Having a hidden disability can be both a blessing and a curse.
There have been too many times to count, where I have gone to the stores and had a sales clerk come up to me and start talking to me from behind. I don't notice them walking up to me, being busy looking at something. Then sometimes I get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, like something doesn't feel right. Looking up, I'm startled to see someone standing so close to me, looking a little irritated at me. I realize at the moment they must have been talking to me and I do the gesture, 'point at ears and shrug'. When the person understands I can't hear, they get all sympathetic and apologize. Most of the time, they walk away, never to return and even to the point of avoiding me. Sometimes, I'll get the occasional beginner signer that wants to practice with me-- "I know sign language!! Look--" then they proceed to finger spell very slowly, "m...y n...a...m...e i...s k...no wait, I mean p...a....t...t...y." They don't realize that they take so long to sign and I really have better things to do.
Don't get me wrong, I AM glad that they are learning sign language and I know they need to practice to keep improving and sign faster, but when I am shopping, you are intruding on my time. You have no idea if I am in a hurry and do you do that to hearing customers??
I have been to restaurants and instead of telling the waiter (or waitress) what I want, I point at the menu. It is unbelievable how many times I have gotten dirty looks and the roll of the eyes! Maybe hearing people don't realize how expressive their faces can be, but Deaf people rely on facial expressions and we can usually tell how you feel just by the look on your face, no matter what your words may be saying. There is nothing more frustrating for me to have the waiter start telling me what the special is, going on and on, all his words falling on deaf ears, even after I told him I am deaf. So I sit there and wait until his mouth stops moving and then point at the menu.
It's always a pleasant surprise to go somewhere, say a yard sale, and finding the person to be fluent in sign language. I can relax a little and sign back. If they are a hearing person, it's always curious to me where they learned sign from-- Deaf relative, co-worker, friend?
There are also people who understand that I am Deaf and make special effort, umm, too much effort. The louder voice, exaggerated mouth movements, wild hand gestures, or just talking to me like I am a 5 year old. Or how about the hearing people that, no matter what they do, you just can't understand-- long mustache covering the lips, really bad teeth so that you are distracted looking at the teeth instead of the lips, hands covering the mouth, to name a few.
When you meet a Deaf person, please know that they are normal humans just like you, they simply can't hear. If you talk and get no response, tap them on the shoulder so we don't jump when we find someone strange standing so near. Talk normally, but a little clearer than normal-- like if you usually mumble your words, slow down a little and don't use complicated words. Keep it simple. And if you are a beginner signer, ask permission first, to practice your spelling or signs on us. It might earn you some free signing tips because you were nice enough to ask.
One more thing, there are DIFFERENT levels of Deafness. Some Deaf people can talk well, some can't talk at all, and some talk a little strange, what we call 'Deaf voice'. Some Deaf people are more comfortable than others in communicating and willing to do whatever it takes to get the point across. Then you have your more subdued Deaf people who would just as soon get it over with as quick as possible. So because you meet a Deaf person that can talk well, please don't get frustrated when you meet another that can't talk at all.
We are all different, whether we are hearing or deaf, in wheelchairs or blind, but we are also human. No one is perfect. You might meet someone that makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe you could get to know them a little, understand where they are coming from and just treat them with the respect we all deserve. What goes around comes around, and some day, you might find yourself in the same spot.