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.

 

 

A Little Bit of Background

Ahh…College, the days of experimenting and exploring yourself and others. Most students probably use the phrase “find yourself” frequently in their college days. I was no different.

As a student at Gallaudet University, I was constantly questioning my identity. For those who don’t know, Gallaudet University is the premier college for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Gallaudet has been described as the mecca of deaf culture. I think I’m getting ahead of myself here…I’d like to share with you my first experience of getting a cochlear implant and then I can tell you all about how my life has changed at Gallaudet.

When I was fourteen, I got my very first cochlear implant (Nucleus Freedom for you curious fellows out there). I remember two very specific events from my first surgery. I remember the day I was activated, when they turned the cochlear implant on for the first time. Now there are youtube videos of people’s reactions to hearing their child’s voice or the sound of their name for the first time and weeping with joy. My experience was VERY different and it’s important that readers understand there is a wide variety of reactions to the activation of one’s cochlear implant.

The day I was activated, my parents were REALLY excited. For two weeks prior to activation I was rendered completely deaf and it was a struggle for my non-signing family to get their message across to me not to mention I was recovering from head surgery. They were anxious to get me back into the hearing world and to be normal again. The doctors warned us that it may not be a pleasant experience but nothing could prepare me for the absolute pain I had gone through upon activation. The doctor turned on my cochlear implant and immediately hated it. I heard, EVERYTHING. I was in a sound proof booth and I remember feeling like the sound of my doctor’s key chain was pounding into my skull. Everyone’s voices sounded like Marvin the Martian…what had happened to my mother’s beautiful soft voice or my father’s strong military tone? I immediately got into fetal position in my chair and had the absolute WORST headache I have ever experienced.

My parents had fear in their eyes. Had they made the wrong decision to get my cochlear implant? Would it ever get better? When we got home, I worked hard to wear my cochlear implant on a day to day basis. I tried my hardest to find sounds that I liked in my home. I knew that I HATED the sound of electricity running through the lights and how absolutely LOUD it was…don’t believe me? Sit in a silent room and just listen…it’ll take a while but for me, my brain was still trying to piece sounds together…what was important? what wasn’t?

It took a relatively good period of time for me to get used to the cochlear implant. Weekly visits to adjust the maps and constantly find the words to describe sound…how do you expect a deaf person to describe a sound? Is it good or bad? I don’t know I’ve never heard it before!

This brings me to my second experience … I remember it clearly. I was watching television with the volume so low that not even my hearing mother could hear it. I stood up to get a drink from the kitchen and mom was making spaghetti. “What’s that SOUND?!” My mom had been accustomed to me asking this and immediately had a worried look on her face…It’s fine, I’ll turn it down don’t worry about it, she responded. “No mom…I like it…what is it?” My mom’s face lit up with a look of pure relief. It was the water boiling in the pot and it was beautiful. From that day, I felt so much better about my cochlear implant and I was ready to take on the hard task of re-learning how to hear again.

I was ready to take on the world with my new Cochlear implant. Wow…what a long post. I wasn’t expecting this. Well I guess next week I can tell you all about how I ended up here at Gallaudet.

So I posted this blog on facebook and got really positive reviews however nothing caused me to react quite as strongly as this:  Lisa Stone Gleason: I think I’ll comment on these blogs…mostly because while you tell the story so well, I’m not sure it is in your nature to highlight just how strong you are Alyssa. When you say you were “recovering from head surgery”…I see you watching a similar surgery on the internet, the night before your own so you’d know what to expect! I see you in the front seat of the car, choosing to leave the hospital ON THE SAME DAY after a 6 hour grueling operation. I see your car seat laid back and your sister holding your head in her hands so you wouldn’t feel any of the bumps we drove over. I see you lying on the couch, head fully wrapped in bandages enjoying the time off to catch up on LOST … understanding the show only with the miracle of Closed Captioning. I see you with short hair you cut off your waist length hair to donate a week before surgery, because they were going to shave yours anyway. I see you SILENTLY sobbing two weeks later when they activated you … but then nodding quietly when the doctor told you that if you left in on, it WOULD get better, and you did… and it did. I see you cringing at dishes clinking together (still today) .. but standing over ANY boiling pot of water, because it sounds so beautiful to you (still today). I want everyone to see how deep your strength runs!!

Putting tears on my face at 7:30 in the morning. GO MOM!