Deaf Authors Talk About Imagination and Creativity

The founder of the D/deaf/HoH kidlit organization Signed Ink speaks with authors about how deafness informs their creative process.



When I was little, my mamita caught me hiding under the dining table, deep in my own world, pretending to be a baby bear. She snuck up behind me and growled like a mama bear, trying to snap me out of the vivid, inventive space otherwise known as my imagination.

My imagination was my space, a power of supernova proportions that evolved with the silent patterns and places of the world that deafness embraces. I was well on my way to becoming a Nefelibata: a cloud walker; a creative person who lives in their own imagination or dreams.

I must not have heard my mother sneaking up on me. I did not have hearing aids then. She did not yet know I had entered a place she couldn’t go: Deaf Space.

I also didn’t know that our brains can change with experience, and that deafness can prompt the brain to augment other senses. According to Scientific American, “A large body of evidence shows when the brain is deprived of input in one sensory modality, it is capable of reorganizing itself to support and augment other senses, a phenomenon known as cross-modal neuroplasticity.”

My brain works differently from a hearing person’s, and silence has enhanced my imagination. Cross-modal neuroplasticity gave my imagination a different perspective, an inimitable deviation from the norm. And as other authors have learned, I discovered that through writing, I could not only share my imagination, but my Deaf Space, too.

As a child, I wanted to see myself in literature. But most books I found highlighted what a deaf person couldn’t do, as opposed to what we could. I felt sad about that. After all, I had no deaf mentors to show me what a confident Deaf person could do, and there were no D/deaf/hard of hearing children at school for me to relate to. My first remembrance of a deaf character in literature was in a picture book, I Have a Sister—My Sister is Deaf, by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson. I found it odd that the book was written from the sister’s point of view. Why not the deaf sister’s viewpoint?

Still today, the chances of a mainstreamed D/deaf child encountering other deaf children in school is slim, and many grow up in families without a single D/deaf family member. Fortunately, there are more authentic books by D/deaf authors about Deaf characters now. But there is still work to be done.

That’s why, in 2020, I created Signed Ink, an author collective with the mission to spread D/deaf/HoH voices across the globe. I recently asked several writers to describe how their imaginations soar and how deafness impacts the creative writing process.

“I don’t think in long English prose sentences,” says Deaf author Ann Clare Lezotte, who wrote the historical novel Show Me a Sign and its sequel, Set Me Free. “I see words, signs, but also vivid images and scenes. My hands start to move, I tap my feet and make spontaneous noises. I’m writing, though there may be nothing on the paper for a while except for my own notation and simple pictograms.”

“I never try to write so many words a day. My process won’t allow it,” Lezotte continues. “I walk. I look. I think. Until that richness starts to trickle then flow under my fingers on the keyboard. I love that tactile aspect of typing and watching the lines move across the page. Silent music!”

Samantha Baines is the author of Harriet Versus the Galaxy, a middle grade novel about a girl who discovers that her hearing aid translates alien languages.

“I can take my hearing aid out and just be alone with my imagination, which is a super fun place to be,” she says.

For Sara Nović, who wrote the novels True Biz and Girl at War, imagination has developed through silence and the benefits of a visual language. “Imagination-wise, I think American Sign Language (ASL) has truly made me a better writer,” she says. “I think that being bilingual in any language is helpful for a writer—languages are our tools on the page, but they also shape our worldviews. Specifically, ASL gives me the skills to think more visually, and that translates, I hope, to more vivid renderings of scenes on the page.”

Kerry O’Malley Cerra is the author of Just a Drop of Water and the forthcoming Hear Me (Sept. 2022), about a girl who is at odds with her parents over her upcoming cochlear implant surgery. She says that she used to come up with hilarious dialogue in her head of what she thought the conversations around her might entail. “It was quite entertaining and a great way to pass the time when I felt left out.”

“Deafness lends itself to creativity naturally,” adds Cerra, who experienced progressive hearing loss. “I rely on context and other clues—a process called auditory closure—to help me puzzle reality together.”

Much of the time, she gets things wrong. “Sometimes it’s mortifying, but sometimes it’s hilarious,” she says. “I recently had bilateral cochlear implant surgery. Though I still struggle in many situations and I’m so grateful for my bionic ear, I’m even more grateful it hasn’t lessened my keenness to make up stories.”

Author Molly Shaffer started losing her hearing at 21 and is now profoundly hard of hearing. “Some of the best moments of my writing are when I take out my hearing aids and allow my characters room to talk with me,” she explains. “They have my absolute attention in those sweet moments, and beautiful things happen when I listen with my heart.” Shaffer’s novel The Purpose of Me is about a girl who finds another girl’s misplaced diary at a thrift store and is lured into the pages of the diary.

For award-wining author Cece Bell, silent or muted moments helped her imagination blossom in unique ways. “There are certain situations that unintentionally foster creativity in a deaf person, including any social situation where we must politely sit for long periods of time and wonder what the heck is going on,” says Bell, author of El Deafo and the “Chick and Brain” series, and executive producer of the El Deafo Apple TV+ series. “The only way to survive the crushing boredom of having no idea what is being said is to take advantage of these little restful periods and let your thoughts entertain you.”

Daydreaming often comes to the rescue, Bell adds. “Sometimes during social events I’ll think I’ve successfully caught a few words or phrases, but then I’ll realize they’re too funny to be correct. When you misunderstand things as frequently as I do, you might have an advantage over hearing folks when it comes to creating your own silly words, puns, and phrases off-the-cuff.”

Bell grew up watching a lot of cartoons on TV before shows were captioned. “I’d make up what the characters were saying and try to piece together my own plot,” she says. “I’m pretty sure that helped me write comics, and I often encourage blossoming comics writers to replicate this experience by watching TV with the volume off!”

I recall doing that, too! And at Signed Ink, we believe that all D/deaf children deserve to see themselves in the pages of books, telling them they matter. We also maintain that it is a D/deaf person’s right to choose which tools they use on their journey, be it a signed language, hearing aids, cochlear implants, Signed English, or something else. And we advocate the importance of providing D/deaf children with a full, accessible language to prevent language deprivation, encourage literacy, and provide equal access to communication.

Want to know more about Signed Ink? Email me at

Signed Ink founder Angela Peña Dahle writes middle grade fantasy and historical fantasy novels as well as picture books and was the 2020 recipient of the We Need Diverse Books Walter Grant.

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