How Deaf people hear without ears

While washing dishes facing the kitchen window, a Deaf mother smiled as she listened to the feet of her five-year-old girl delightfully stomping around and around in the kitchen behind her. Another, as soon as someone slammed the door downstairs, the same woman knew someone had departed. Another, as the cat on leash hissed at the dog in the distance, the woman turned to look. She startled when there was a really loud buzz around.

But, she is profoundly Deaf without any hearing devices nor hearing sounds since birth. Her audiogram shows over 120dB in both ears. How?


It's not to say that Deaf people sense vibration in the same way hearing people hear. It's a different world of senses. Sometimes, Deaf people sense vibrations that hearing people don't hear and same true for vice versa.

The "hearing" plasticity in the brain

What do you think her auditory cortex or "hearing plasticity" is doing? Underdeveloped, unused, inactive? Rusty and dusty? Dead neural cells? Nah. Nope. It's fully alive, active, and vibrant. But, she never hears. How so?

Did you know that Deaf people (who never use hearing aids or cochlear implants) use their auditory cortex or "hearing" plasticity to process both visual and tactile stimuli?

My ASL 200-level students gaped. Their memories raced over the past three semesters of all the situations that were mysterious to them as if I were not really Deaf.

Deaf people are much sensitive and sharp with visual and tactile stimuli. Our visual-tactile regions of the brain are enhanced. Deaf people including myself can confirm our daily life experiences as well as we can observe how often hearing people overlook right in front of their eyes when we see something subtle.

Hearing people typically believe that it is unimaginable to live without so-important sound that they think they could not live without hearing. Deaf people shrug off that life is perfectly fine without those sounds. Below are experiences of what it is like to live with visual cues and vibration-based sounds.

If you have your other experiences or stories, feel free to send an email to Handspeak. Below is not an exhaustive list.

Communicating, chatting, talking

When hearing drops, language doesn't drop. We still have languages in visual-spatial modality. Writing back and forth with hearing non-signers. Email. Bilingualism in signed language and written/spoken language.

Calling or getting someone's attention..

Tapping her/his shoulder.. turning on/off the light.. stomping on the floor.. waving hands.. using an intermediary person.. flashing a light.. seeing through a mirror or reflection.. texting from another room..

Waking up to a clock alarm..

Modern days: light-flashing clock.. vibrating clock... Old days but may be still practiced: biological clock.. sunshine rays.. drinking a large glass of water before sleeping..

Doorbell ringing..

Light-flashing doorbell rings.. dogs barking.. knocking hard on the door if no doorbell light (e.g. hotel room).. waving a paper or flat object under the door (e.g. dorm room or hotel room typically in the old days).. these days, texting on cellphone...

In the olden days, people waved hands in front of Deaf people's windows. There was a flashlight hanging outside the door that when a visitor came to the door at night, s/he could wave the flashlight through the window.

Watching movies..

A common text-based translation is the captions or subtitles on television, screen, or laptop.

Telecaptioner in the 1980s used by Deaf
Image source: unknown.

The captioning device (image above) was an external device in the 1980s. It was put on the top of a television set, just as some of you probably had a cat sitting on the top of yours. Since the 1990s, all television sets come with an internal captioning chip that everyone, hearing and deaf alike, can turn on captioning.

Another form of captioning is a live court reporter who also works in the educational settings, not only in courts. A deaf or hard-of-hearing person sits in front of the laptop and watches the captioned English translated from a teacher, instructor, or professor's speech.

Visual sounds or "visues"

Deaf people see things that hearing people sometimes overlook. We naturally sense subtle things that hearing people don't notice, such as body language, environmental information, etc. We perceive the world differently.

The Mystery Solved

Remember the woman who was startled by a long-stretchy very-loud buzz in the first paragraph above? What was it? She looked around and, ah, there it is.

Bee buzzing
Photo by Jolanta Lapiak

A bee! It must be upset with her for taking the marigolds away from it.

Asides vibrations, we have a lot of stories about "hearing culture" on how hearing people "see". :)

Posted 1997, updated 2003, 2020.

Related posts

Stories about how Deaf people perceive from a Deaf perspective.

How they use phone technology and how they hear doorbells and rings.

How great Deaf drivers are they?

Enter a keyword in the field box below to search or filter the new topic list and click on the link.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.