ridicuLIST: All Deaf People Make Good Spies

Posted by: Staff Writer on June 12, 2013

Do not heed advice from the cast members of Seinfeld when in one episode they convince Marlee Matlin’s comical deaf character, Laura, to lip-read and eavesdrop on one of George’s ex-girlfriends at a party.

Laura’s attempt to lip-read and facilitate the conversation ended the party with mishaps and misunderstandings between characters on the show. Even though the speechreading was immaculate - the rest of the cast’s understanding of Matlin’s character did not go well. Faces got slapped and people were offended; the typical plot line of every episode of Seinfeld.

And how could we do an article on Deaf spies and not include Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye, played by Deaf actress Deanne Bray. A deaf detective with speechreading skills so proficient it could put us all to shame; this skill helps Thomas solve crimes from a distance and tackle suspects from America’s top wanted list. Her hearing golden retriever, Levi, assists Thomas in her investigations, escapes from being trapped in a building, and rescues Thomas from a shooting – is it Levi or Super Hearing Dog? Sue Thomas and Levi are used in the show for the purpose of entertainment for hearing and deaf viewers, but how much of it is real? The character Sue Thomas is loosely based on the real-life deaf woman by the same name. Several of the episodes do present similar experiences the real Sue Thomas had when she was hired by the FBI in the early 1980’s. We should question the real Thomas about her experiences with living through explosions and dodging bullets.

Despite the amazing ability to fight crime by using her speechreading skills, the reality is that it requires years and years of training for people to become highly skilled speechreaders, especially in security related jobs. In addition to using grainy camera surveillance footage and the quality after zooming into faces – speechreading can be quite a difficult task. The average speechreader would be lucky to catch a sentence or two.

Deaf people might speechread much better than the general population, but even the best speechreaders can only understand about 30% of what is being spoken. Deaf people as spies are rarer than you think – but not impossible. It’s not as simple as inviting a deaf lip-reader from a random Italian restaurant to a party to spy for you. This may lead to Matlin’s case when sometimes the word ‘six’ when spoken and read on the lips could be interpreted otherwise.

Have you been asked by a hearing person to use your speechreading skills to spy on a conversation? 


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