Deaf at the Dentist

Deaf and hard of hearing people face communication challenges everyday, but some are especially unique to the dentist’s office.

“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. No one wants to see the dentist.

Maybe I feel sorry for them, so I go.   Well, I don’t want my teeth to rot either. 

Way to keep us empaths committed, but I think for most, it’s a dreaded chore.

Unless you’re talking to one of those people who get on Facebook to say that they *just LOVE* going to the dentist. I mean really – shut up. What’s the point of that?

Most normal people at least agree it’s not the most pleasant appointment. 

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. 

I admit I’m a bad dental patient

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? 

The dentist’s office poses some unique communication barriers:

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?” 

You’re upside down.

That chair moves totally for their convenience, see. So if they like to sit down while they work your head will be in teir lap practically. Try lipreading, writing or texting from that position.  Darn Inconvenient. 

They’re less reluctant to write things down or read anything you write down.

They’re wearing gloves so it’s probably 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 have your file, for Pete’s sake. They ask you questions but they don’t actually care what the answer is. 

They have their own “sign language”.

Probably evolved from the above novocain-numb issue. My hygenist opened her fist into a 5.  I just looked at her.  She took down her mask and said, “OPEN”.

Everybody got that? 

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!


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, might be similar.

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, these extra weird types of barriers are STILL THERE and frankly they deserve honorable mention:

It is still tough to get an interpreter even though it’s required by law.

Now 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 interpreting 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.

But if you’re the first, May the Force Be With Ya. 

captioned TV
Property Brothers!

They rarely know how to turn the captions on their own TVs.

Now, 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!  Who-hoo!

Not only THAT, but they must be mind-readers in knowing I LOVE Property Brothers.  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, man.  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 ever resourceful dentist then asked me if *I* knew how to turn on the captions, to which I helpfully explained that didn’t come in my “how to be deaf” packet at birth and… OK I’M KIDDING.  

I really did NICELY explain (with my butt cheeks clenched together) that each TV was different, and what they should look for.  After a short study/kerfuffle with the remote, there was finally an “ahhh!” the dentist then rested her hand on my arm after the experience and said, “Life is a learning experience.”

Roger that, doc. Glad to help.

Sounds you never heard before are loud.

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.

But here I’ve discovered one more thing to add to that list: rubber gloves snapping.  LAWD.

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

Stupid stuff blocks our access.

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’s the thing. 

Deaf and hard of hearing people can feel invisible in tricky communication situations like the dentist office.  But you know what? We’re here too.  We count.

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. 


8 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!

    1. 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.

  5. So am late to your blog as you can tell by my comments a few years after this fantastic post. I just finished up last week my last of 45 dentist appointments and this post was not only knee slapping funny, but bang on the money including the “DDL” signing that occurred.

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