Four Dumb People
Disclaimer: This article does not intend to insult the deaf-mute community, it is targeted towards those who “normal” people who don’t speak and listen. The author has a huge amount of respect for the deaf-mute people who have taught him more than most normal people. The words might seem derogatory but is not intended to be so, at least not to the deaf-mute community.
Let me begin by introducing myself. My name is unimportant but to put in context, I work as a dentist in a government hospital. The following is my story of how I met four dumb people and what that taught me. It cannot be said that I’d never met any dumb people before them, but they have had a greater role than many other dumb or not people.
The first dumb person was a girl of sixteen back when I was just one year into service. She came with her sister and had let her tooth become infected, hence was in intense pain. Why she stuck in my memory was because she came looking very smart. Both the sisters had dressed as if they were working in the bank with neatly pressed shirts and pants and a blazer over them. They had prepared their makeup accordingly. In fact, save for the fact that the elder one could speak and the younger one couldn’t, they even looked a great deal alike. She impressed me because I was used to seeing verbally challenged people walking in the streets dirty and in rather shabby clothes. Her personality impressed me, for as a person who speaks of equality an educated smart verbally challenged person was a beautiful thing to behold. I was impressed by her struggle and conviction and I told her so (through her sister of course). When we came to her treatment, both the sisters wanted the tooth to be extracted. But the better way is always to save the tooth, which is what I told them. Reluctant at first, it took some time to convince the elder one and she told what I told her to her sister. Eventually, the younger one also relented and I started the treatment, the first step of which would relieve her pain. Then I gave her an appointment for the next visit and sent them on their way, still being happy to meet them.
They never made the second visit in the next six months that I was there. A few weeks later I saw her on a bike and she did not look like she was in pain. Later I found out that she got her tooth extracted at a private clinic. Now, this was nothing new, there are always patients who never make a second visit and just change doctors but this one was different because both the sisters were smart, and I was pretty sure I had her sister convinced. I, therefore, took it as my personal failure, for if I had any better way to communicate directly with the patient rather than her sister, I could have made her understand. I thus vowed to learn sign language so as not to fail any other such patients.
I met the second dumb person about 2 years after that event. I happened to be working in a different area and the second dumb person was brought in. Dressed in typical rural clothes, this person had apparently been buried under a muddy landslide. He looked stable albeit a bit dusty. A diagnostic x-ray revealed that there was a slight fracture in his pelvic bone. Now any doctor will tell you that a fracture of pelvic bone could very well be lethal if not treated properly, and we did not have enough expertise to treat him at that hospital. A referral to a higher centre was needed. The problem was that none of the healthcare staff including me knew any sign language. So, we couldn’t figure out what that person’s name was, where he was from and where his relatives lived. His external wounds were treated, his vitals stabilized but none of us could do as little as asking him properly if it hurt or not, or where it hurt or if he felt any other discomfort. Veins opened for fluid management was the most invasive thing we could do, and since even walking to the canteen was a problem for him due to his fracture, it also served as a temporary route for nutrition. The road to the higher centre was blocked due to landslides for about a day, and we could only manage to send him away after roads were cleared. One of our staff went with him, and he reported something that made me ashamed of myself when he came back. When he came back, he told me that the first thing they did when they admitted him to the higher centre was put in a catheter (something to help pass urine, google it). In our ignorance and frustration of not understanding and stress to have that person be referred to as soon as possible, we had forgotten to put in a catheter.
I was embarrassed. For close to one day, a person had been holding back his urine and the associated pain and none of us even knew about it. Sure we could see he was slightly distressed, but none of us could talk to him and none of us knew what he felt. It was a mistake on our part, yes, more than that it was a failure on our part to communicate properly with our patient. I thus vowed to learn sign language so as not to fail any other such patients.
The third dumb person was different. First because unlike the other two, I did not meet this person in a clinical setting. I was returning to my workplace from home when I met this person on the bus. I was on the window seat, staring at nothing in particular but thinking of the road back when this person got on and sat beside me. He too was dressed like a rural farmer, but he had neatly tucked a folded newspaper under his left arm. He reeked of alcohol, so I paid him no heed and began looking out again. But that didn’t last long, because this person was having none of it. He tapped my arm and started what I can only imagine was a monologue in a furious flurry of sign language. Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. I understood a very insignificant amount of it, but kept my attention on him in order to humour him. He kept on and on, occasionally pointing at the pictures in the newspaper. At first, I couldn’t understand what he was saying and was even bothered. I wondered why this man wouldn’t leave me alone when it was clear that I understood nothing. I even tried to tell him that I didn’t understand but it didn’t bother him. It seemed he had something to say and he would do it whether I understood it or not. And so, apparent that I wouldn’t be left alone, so I decided to try and understand him. Very little I did, but the longer I looked at him, the more he kind of made sense. I understood that he was a farmer or worked with one. He imitated the cutting of rice and the milking of cows. He signed he was going somewhere with army personnel, which apparently was also translated as traffic police as that is where he got off. As he made more and more signs, it made more and more sense. He signed he was going where he was going to buy things. At this point I asked him if he had been drinking, pointing “you” imitating a peg “alcohol” and imitating drink “drinking” followed by the universal what/how/why sign of hand. Essentially was trying to ask if he had had a drink. He smiled, nodded, and signed little. Then he explained to me he never takes a lot, always a little. Then he asked me if I was married, and when I declined, he signed he was and he had 4 children. He signed that one of his children lived in the direction we came from and one lived in the direction we were going. He signed his wife was dead and it was either “her finger was cut” or “she died 3 and a half years ago”. Lack of voice was not going to stop him from expressing himself. He signed with furious passion, explaining and repeating while I watched dumbfounded, picking at titbits.
It was then that he introduced me to the fourth dumb person. That dumb person was me. Because I realized that it was not me but he who was speaking all this time. And I, so proud and granted, sat there looking but not understanding anything. The tables had turned. The dumb was speaking and the able could not understand. I was shamed and humbled.
After he left, I pondered upon my beliefs. Not knowing sign language is not that big a deal, most of the people on earth can’t understand it. What made me ashamed as I had vowed to learn to sign multiple times over a course of more than 3 years yet I had failed to even take one step towards that effect. I was lying to myself to make me feel superior. These three people clearly showed that they were much better than me. I hung my head in shame. I then vowed to learn sign language so as not to fail again.