Deaf at the Dentist

deaf at the dentist

Let the fun begin…

“No one likes going to the dentist.”

I rolled my eyes reading this text reply from my mom after I whined about my experience getting my crown worked on earlier that day. She was right, though. That’s exactly what keeps me showing up. No one wants to see the dentist – so I feel sorry for them! (That and not wanting my teeth to rot).  Keeps us empaths committed, I suppose.

It’s such an ordeal going, though!  Unless you’re talking about people who post about their dentist visits on Facebook. I mean those who post that they *just LOVE* going. I mean really – shut up.  Most (regular) people agree it’s at least unpleasant.  And then there’s another percentage of us who are downright stressed out, petrified, sweat through their clothes and AVOID GOING for months or even years. 

That last one is me. I didn’t go for years. In my defense, we didn’t have dental insurance for a long time so there were no reminders coming in and it just got put off until “we got insurance” or y’know we won the lottery.  Because I had about the same chance of making an appointment if I wasn’t feeling like lightning was striking my gums themselves.

Well lightning wasn’t quite striking, but when I got in for a visit (a little sensitivity trotted out the rot-paranoia) this new dentist tells me I need a crown replaced. AND possibly a root canal. Awesome. Stab me right in the heart, doc.  I then rewarded her for this by avoiding their calls for another 6 months.  Then, when I finally suck it up and show up for the dreaded appointment, (ONLY after getting a second opinion from a much more expensive, keurig-in-the-waiting-room dentist whom I basically paid to say “no root canal” in writing) I remember something else through my fog of fear: I’M DEAF. I gotta do the communication dance. 

It’s not a carefree, finger-snapping, boogie-hustle, but I’ve been doing this “dance” long enough that I think I can effectively advocate for myself in MOST situations, but something about the D-E-N-T-I-S-T can bring out the embarrassing, little girl TEARS.  And then I do another 180 because of the whole psychological smack I give myself because the empath in me remembers the poor dentist who nobody likes. So it’s a whole set of Jekyll-and-Hyde emotions I go through.  (Being my dentist sounds fun, doesn’t it?) 

My personal dramatics aside, there ARE special considerations that make the dentist office unique for ANY deaf or hard of hearing person:

  1. They wear masks covering their mouths. So unless you have laser vision, they’re going to have to take them off for you to lipread them.  Mine usually do this with no problem.  But that makes germophobe-me think, “Am I going to catch something now?” 
  2. You’re upside down. That chair moves totally for their convenience, see. Try lipreading, writing or texting from that position.  Darn Inconvenient. 
  3. They’re less reluctant to write things down or read anything you write down. They’re wearing gloves so perhaps its a germ thing, but the real reason is THEY CAN’T UNDERSTAND ANYONE anyway.  Everyone’s numb. They stick every sharp object they have in your mouth. They’re not expecting you to spew forth boatloads of need-to-know data anyway. They ask you questions but they don’t actually care what the answer is. 
  4. They have their own “sign language”. My hygenist opened her fist into a 5.  I just looked at her.  She took down her mask and said, “OPEN”. Everybody got that? 

Dental Sign Lang = DSL. During my husband’s appointment he REALLY lucked out and both the dentist and hygenist knew their ABCs and FINGERSPELLED every word they wanted to say to him!

A-R-E-HANDSWIPE-Y-O-U-HANDSWIPE-I-N-HANDSWIPE-P-A-I-N 

You might think this is a good thing. If you do, consider listening to the verbal                   equivalent over 3 hours:

“Ay-Are-EE. New word. Why-Oh-You. New word. Eye-En. New word. Pee-Ay-Eye-En. Question mark” 

Ill intentions, no.  Chinese water torture, pretty much. Bottom line: It’s VERY rare to find a dentist or hygenist who is actually fluent in American Sign Language. And not every patient who is deaf or hard of hearing even SIGNS, so it’s an imperfect wish, at best. 

In the several years since I’d been spending any amount of time in a dentist’s office, I noticed some things change and yet, THEY DON’T. I’m on hyper alert when I go, even though I’m doing mental yoga/mind-mantras that I make up, this stuff is STILL THERE and frankly deserves honorable mention:

  • I did not request an interpreter for my appointment, but that was after my husband did and we got the usual resistance that we chose not to “fight”.  They stated they are making the legally required reasonable accommodations in the form of writing and signing (cough). Hubs had an emergency and I’m obviously a bit of a basket case in there anyway.  I just want it to be done and over. Communication was my smallest issue here. But it remains a service someone can request from their dentist. I find the more an office has worked with deaf and hard of hearing patients, the quicker they are to understand what effective communication is and how to provide it. If you’re the first, May the Force Be With Ya. 

    captioned TV

    Property Brothers!

  • This dentist may not have had a coffee-station (how does that even work?  I mean, you brush your teeth until they frickin’ SQUEAK and now you’re gonna drink a latte?) but they had TVs in every exam room!  Not only THAT, but they must be mind-readers in knowing I LOVE that Property Brothers show.  Alas, I debated asking them to turn on the captions knowing there would be some deer in the headlights look, but this was PROPERTY BROTHERS, come on.  I deserve SOME type of comforting reassurance  while they violated my delicate piehole. So I politely asked and of course both the dentist and hygenist of course were not at all remote-savvy.  The dentist asked me if *I* knew how to turn on the captions.  I explained that didn’t come in my “how to be deaf” packet at birth and… KIDDING!  Ok, I really did NICELY explain (with my butt cheeks clenched together, I’ll admit) each TV was different, and what they should look for.  After a short kerfuffle, and there was finally an “aha!” the dentist then placed her hand on my arm zen-like and said, “Life is a learning experience.” Roger that, doc. Glad to help.
  • I have a newer and apparently more sensitive hearing aid since my last visit. Usually I’m only reminded of it’s sensitivity when my husband or kids is chewing food and positioned on my left side.  Ditto when my former co-worker was sitting in the hot spot and belched “under her breath” during a meeting. (Tip: A fresh can of coke + a small room + a quiet atmosphere will ALWAYS = some form of Gas) So my tests of jaw clenching frequencies are pretty few and far between. But here I’ve discovered one more thing to add to that list: rubber gloves snapping.  Might as well be scraping your fork on a can of tuna.  Gah.

    Pumpkins

    Where’s Waldo? The receptionist is back there.. SOMEwhere.

  • It’s October, the fun Halloween season and there were these beautiful, elaborately decorated, GINORMOUS pumpkins covering the reception “desk” (more like a wall to us short people). The receptionist is perched behind them and hands you a poker chip and asks you to “vote” on one of the pumpkins by placing the chip into the jar beside it. That is, if she even sees you over them. And as it was right after lunch, there were other patients coming in at the same time oohing and aahhhing over the pumpkins and much excited banter ping ponging between the reception area pit and the back of the waiting room – all over my head. I was looking for an opening. I felt pretty ridiculous since I’m usually trying to gain eye contact before letting them know I was there, I’m deaf, etc. So I did the logical thing. I raised my hand.  I stood up. Middle of the room.  “Excuse me!” Disco.  Eye contact.  Me on tippy toes at the desk between pumpkins. Note written by receptionist to me explaining the all important voting process along with voting poker chip to use.  And oh yes, more importantly: I LET HER KNOW I WAS THERE.

And that the thing.  I feel invisible in these situations.  But I remind myself I’m here too. I count. We all do. We can feel what we feel about sucky communication/awareness but the key is always standing up.  State your needs. Figure it out. Raise your hand high.

And if you have your teeth, SMILE. 

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5 thoughts on “Deaf at the Dentist

  1. What you wrote is hilarious & I laughed a whole lot but this does make one think that there absolutely needs to be more accessible communication out there for the deaf & hard of hearing. Keep up everything you do because you always make me smile! Love you!

    • Thanks Debi! We actually do pretty well when the stars perfectly line up with interpreters or captions and just general awareness. Alas the world is an imperfect place. That’s a lot of why I write too, to help bring my perspective. If it raises awareness to someone it might not normally, that’s awesome. Thanks for the kudos, too I appreciate it <3

  2. Jen….you have quite a gift for expressing yourself in so many different situations. This one is definitely “one for the books.” Your gift takes the reader right into the dentist chair with you!! I’m glad the ordeal is over and you actually did exceedingly well. Thank you for sharing your experience!!

  3. What a process, you are a patient person!!
    In the end I hope you have a painless and happy smile.
    So good to see you Jen!!❤️

  4. Oh my, you are dead on here and so funny in keeping it real. I am going to forward to my new dentist before I see his office for the first time next week. Just cuz I can! Thanks much and looking forward to more of your writing.

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