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?


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

Did you know that Deaf people (who don't use hearing aids or cochlear implants) use their auditory cortex or "hearing" plasticity to process both visual and tactile stimuli?

This also means Deaf people are much sensitive and sharp with visual and tactile stimuli. Deaf people including myself can confirm our daily life experiences.

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

Language 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..

"The public bus was our clock alarm. In a Polish village, Ratowice, in the 1970s, the first public bus usually passed by our house regularly at a specific time every early morning at around 5am. It made enough rumbling vibration and its headlights flashed through the window that woke us up for work." -- Zofia Lapiak.

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"

"The Secret Garage Door Light-dots". My hearing partner and I bought a house with detached garage in 2010. He put some fabrics that covered the windows of the garage. I took off the fabric off one particular window where I could look through from the kitchen window. He put it back. I took it down. He later asked why. Because, it's my sound. It's the window that I could "hear" whether he's home. Whether he's in the garage. Whether he's out. I had a secret 'visual sound'. There was a tiny double glowing orange dot linked to the garage door that I could see in the complete dark at night. If I couldn't see it, his truck covered it. He's home. If I could see the tiny light, he's out.

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 hearing 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 hearing people see from a Deaf perspective.

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

How great Deaf drivers are they?