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.