Coming to terms with my deafness on a cultural level

I chose to attend Gallaudet University for several reasons. I wanted to meet deaf people, Gallaudet was a liberal arts college that had several programs I was interested in, and deaf culture there was rich (something I had since been missing). I started the application process in August and found out on my birthday (November) that I was accepted!

After receiving my acceptance letter, I was offered the opportunity to attend JumpStart. Jump Start is a program at Gallaudet that immerses new signers into a culture of American Sign Language to prepare students for the Gallaudet experience where all classes are taught in American Sign Language and deaf “manners” are to be followed.

The video above is one example of how deaf and hearing cultures clash. Hearing people think that deaf people’s facial expressions are funny or weird. Deaf people use facial expressions as a part of grammar. JumpStart gave us the opportunity to become culturally aware and to change our perceptions on cultural differences. The program also gave us the opportunity to hone our signing skills and signing development.

It was through JumpStart that I made some of the best friends I have in my life. I met one man who was joining the swim team like I was and we were able to support each other through our first year of school. My first year at Gallaudet was wonderful but it definitely wasn’t all fun and games. Part of being a new signer is knowing that you as a deaf person will be judged as “not deaf enough”. My signing wasn’t “fluent enough”, using the telephone on campus was a HUGE no-no but it was that freshman year that I started to find myself and figure out where I stood in the Deaf community.

Similarly to the black community, hispanic community and any other cultural group, there is a range of people who identify themselves as a part of that culture. For example, some people in the black community feel they don’t fit in because they are mixed race, others feel that regardless of their lineage, they are culturally black. This was the same for the deaf community.

I had to self-analyze constantly. Should I use my cochlear implant on campus? Is the use of my cochlear implant a way of me saying I’m not deaf like you? What if I used my voice on campus and spoke to friends who could also speak? Did that make me less deaf than others? What about my future as a deaf woman? What would I do if I had a deaf child? All of these questions reeled through my head all year long.

In October of my first year at Gallaudet, I met my very soon to be husband. He is deaf. He has used American Sign Language his entire life. He went to a deaf school for sixteen years (starting at age 2). His aunt and uncle are deaf. We were complete cultural polar opposites. Somehow we were able to make it work. It was through our relationship, my education at Gallaudet and the friendships I made here that I was able to stand up and say “I am deaf regardless of how I choose to communicate or whether or not I use my cochlear implant. I am deaf all the time not just when I’m at Gallaudet but when I’m at home with my family or when I’m walking down the streets of DC. I am deaf all the time.” I now consider myself to be an active member of a wonderful community. Yes there are still people who give me the stink eye for answering my phone or speaking instead of signing but I am always careful to respect deaf people and deaf culture.

Gallaudet University has given me so many opportunities that I definitely feel no other university in the world could give me. I found a community that I didn’t know I was a part of and am now working towards becoming a teacher for other deaf children. I also have become more aware of the way society views deafness. I am able to advocate for myself and others when I am out in public. I have learned not to pity deaf people and also not to allow others to pity me. I also do not rely on my cochlear implant to make me “better than”. Just because I have a cochlear implant does not mean that I am more capable than someone without a cochlear implant.

The above statement could be argued that having a cochlear implant makes someone “better than” in relation to the workforce but the fact is, there are reasonable accommodations that can be made in ANY field. Can’t answer the phone? Get a video phone or text! Can’t speak? Get a piece of paper or communicate via email. Accommodations do not have to be expensive but they do require people to have an open mind and willingness to put a little more effort into creating effective communication.

Through Gallaudet, I have become a more open-minded person and definitely a more culturally aware woman. I don’t think I could have gotten that experience anywhere else.

 

 

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Looking for Something I Didn’t Know Was Missing

Two years after my first Cochlear implant, I was doing FABULOUSLY! I had just finished my sophomore year of high school in Kailua, Hawaii and I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

My dad, a United States Marine, got stationed from Kaneohe Bay MCBH, Hawaii to the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  This was our Nth move (I can honestly say I have lost count throughout the years) and for me, well that’s life. For 14 years, my sister and I had never complained about moving but you can bet your butt this was one move we didn’t want to make…seriously who wants to leave Hawaii?! But we did what we had to do, packed up and moved into a beautiful house in Springfield, Virginia.

My new high school was only a mile away from my house but that didn’t stop the school from recommending that I attend Woodson High School (a mainstreamed school with a deaf program) over half an hour away. Of course, I had been accustomed to that kind of attitude and simply stated that I did not have any desire to attend a deaf school when this school was so close and the appropriate accommodations would need to be made for me. (An FM system, Closed Captioning on the televisions, and speech therapy) After deciding that I would in fact attend R. E. Lee High School, it was time for me to choose my classes. It was determined that some of the classes I took in Hawaii would not transfer over to Virginia, so I ended up taking two science classes and two history classes in my junior year of high school. All I had left to decide was which language I wanted to take.

Lee High School at that time offered over five different foreign languages including Japanese and German. There was one class I wanted to take, partly because I thought it’d be easy, American Sign Language. Readers might be surprised to know that I had never used American Sign Language growing up. I had only taken one course when I was fairly young with my mom and sister at a community college for fun and I had a dictionary that I learned specific words from once in a while but I never became a fluent user of ASL simply because I never felt I needed it.

When I went to my first ASL class, I made sure to arrive before the other students so I could tell my teacher that I had hearing loss and would need some special accommodations made for me. She promptly looked at me and said, “so?” It took me a while to realize, Oh! it’s a sign language class, I didn’t need to hear in this class. It was determined that I would not use the FM and I would be watching films in ASL for the most part so Captions would be added for the benefit of everyone in class. I learned vocabulary, etiquette and deaf culture and it ended up being one of my favorite classes.

I didn’t make a habit of telling students that I was hearing impaired and typically tried my best to hide it from people ESPECIALLY because I was already the NEW girl…I didn’t want to be the NEW girl with the THING on her ear…and that’s me being nice.  One day in ASL, my teacher was explaining that there were deaf people who used American Sign Language and there were deaf people everywhere. One boy rose his hand and asked the teacher if there were any deaf people in our school and the teacher stared at me and said “I don’t know, are there?” That was my cue…I answered with “huh?” (I didn’t HEAR the question!) Then I realized what I’d missed and said OH YEAH! I’M DEAF! and everyone’s jaw dropped clear through the floor.

I had done such a good job of hiding it that no one even suspected that I had any kind of hearing loss.  From then on, I got all kinds of curious questions and comments. One of my favorites was “You can’t be deaf, you can talk.” My teacher spent a little bit of time talking about cochlear implants and the anatomy of the ear. She also talked to us about Gallaudet University, the only university for deaf and hard of hearing people. My immediate response was “WHERE IS THAT?!” I had never heard of Gallaudet, nor did I know where it was located or what programs were offered but I knew then that I wanted to go.

Can you believe it? Gallaudet was only a 30 minute drive from my home!

During the Summer before my Senior Year, I attended a four week summer immersion program at Gallaudet University to learn American Sign Language.  That was the summer that changed my life. Yes receiving my cochlear implant was pretty life changing but coming into my deaf identity where there was none changed my future.