I was heading down 2nd Avenue a few nights ago around midnight when I picked up a young guy at 31st Street. He told me he was heading for 19th between 5th and 6th and then said something that really caught my attention. He told me he was deaf and if I wanted him to understand anything I wanted to say I should move my mirror down so he could see my lips.
I started driving down the avenue and it took me a few moments to process this information. The first thing that occurred to me was that my passenger, although he said he was deaf, spoke in a normal-sounding voice. I haven't had a lot of experience with the deaf, but it seemed to me that they most likely either don't speak at all because they use sign language or they would have a noticeable speech impediment. So this was odd. I decided to give it a test.
I looked at him in the rear-view mirror. He was looking out his window to his right. "SO HOW'S YOUR NIGHT GOING?" I asked in a loud voice, leaving the mirror in its normal position and keeping my head facing forward. He didn't respond in any way. So I knew that he was, if fact, quite deaf because there was no way he wouldn't have heard me.
The next thing that occurred to me was that in all my 29 years of taxi-driving, having transported countless thousands and thousands of people around New York, this was the first time anyone had ever told me that he could read lips. In fact, I've never met anyone in my life who has this ability. (Have you?) I wanted to know more, so I started a conversation by continuously turning my face toward him so he could see me. Here's what I found out.
His name is Nino and he's twenty-four years old. Nino was not born deaf. He's only been losing his hearing gradually over the last few years, which is why he can speak in a normal voice. He comes from a family of sixteen brothers and sisters (!), none of whom have any hearing problems. So the condition is not genetic. In fact, the doctors don't have a definite explanation for it. What they do know is that damage to a nerve is causing him to lose his hearing. Nino said it may have been from a sports injury or from exposure to loud music, but no one knows for sure.
Amazingly, he has never been taught how to read lips. It's just a skill he picked up out of necessity. He doesn't know sign language, but says it's something he will probably have to learn. Even so, he has no trouble communicating with anyone as long as he can see their lips. I, for one, never would have guessed that he was deaf if he hadn't told me.
I would have said he was just another good-looking guy heading out to a club on a Saturday night.