Stories of a Deaf Identity

FEATURED ARTICLE: SU DCC-NEWS: “Stories of a Deaf Identity”

by Kate Corbett Pollack

Originally written for the Disability Cultural Center Newsletter at Syracuse University.

A sound booth, where I spent seemingly half of my childhood

A sound booth, where I spent seemingly half of my childhood getting hearing tests.

[Names have been changed where appropriate.]

No one ever told me I was Deaf growing up. I didn’t know that I would ever be considered as such, because deaf and disabled were pejorative terms that well-meaning adults did not want associated with me. They feared I would be discriminated against and excluded from mainstream life were such labels applied. And they were probably right.

When my hearing loss was discovered, I was four years old. It was detected during a routine hearing test at my nursery school, and the word deaf was never used, at least not to me. The hearing loss was discovered when I was at the end of my nursery school career, and I was fitted with hearing aids and sent to a regular public kindergarten full of hearing children. I know now that I possess what audiologists refer to as some usable hearing. What this means is that I am able to hear the pitch and the range of sound used by the human voice at a level that other Deaf people may not. Hearing loss is complex, and on a spectrum. Just as people need different prescriptions for their glasses, people need different types of hearing devices and accommodations for their hearing loss. Because I was able to hear the human voice with hearing aids fairly well at this time, I was sent to public school and not to a residential Deaf school or put in special education.

The world before hearing aids was peaceful and beautiful; somewhat monastic. When I look back to those early years, when I was unaware of very much sound, I feel that I was myself. I was able to draw and think and read for hours uninterrupted, and I was content. I was unaware of many societal constructions, particularly regarding gender. The concept of either feeling like a boy or a girl did not occur to me. I just was, and I still feel that I just am; neither male nor female. It felt very free. My parents were not strict about upholding gender norms and the early 80s was a somewhat unisex time for children’s clothing and haircuts anyway. I could not hear television, radio, or other people’s conversations. I remember seeing many things and thinking about them and deciding for myself what they meant and were, as sound did not accompany images for me. I am grateful for this time in my life. My nursery school teacher wrote then in a progress report to my parents that I had an active imagination and was a bit too much in my own world, but otherwise there were no issues noticed regarding my hearing.

In elementary school, I sat up front in my classes and read the teacher’s lips. The faculty and staff at the school were aware that I was hearing impaired, which was the term used. I knew I was hard of hearing and that I had a hearing loss and a hearing impairment, all words that my audiologists applied to me, but I was not deaf. At school, on the playground, the word “deaf” was hurled at me as an insult by jeering boys whom I later learned to beat up, thanks to my father. I was not deaf.

As I continued into Middle School, I was still not among other students that were like me, and I had hearing friends, although my closest friends often had some kind of disability, because that is who I identified with, even if I wasn’t fully aware of and conscious of it. As a child, you just get along with whom you get along with, and that is the way it goes. I didn’t need to be able to hear very well in Middle School anyway, because the classes were so easy that I mostly skipped school. I skipped school for years and so did my best friends. We went downtown instead and hung around the city, often with people who were young adults. Just walking around all day long. I don’t think school really missed us, and we certainly didn’t miss it. I could hear my close friends because I was familiar with the timbre of their voices and how they moved their lips when they spoke. My hearing aids helped, too, but if anyone was going to be a close friend of mine, they had to be disability friendly and accommodate me, and stick up for me if people were assholes. Not that I needed a lot of help with that, but the fact that my best friends were as tough as I was really helped. They were actually much tougher than I ever was.

At this time in my life, I began to gain a reputation as a bit of a delinquent, although my teachers knew that I was smart. I was just bored in school and the streets where I lived were much more interesting and full of adventure, even if it meant having to dodge some scary situations. I had been arrested twice by age 14 and spent a day at juvenile hall in a “scared straight” type of program, because it looked like that was where I was headed. Part of that day was a class for the juvenile offenders during which a teacher asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up. “A writer,” I said.

Because I was getting into so much trouble, my wary single father decided to put me in a private Quaker school. It wasn’t so much a private school as it was a last resort for a lot of parents, and many of my classmates had arrest records, but some were just from backgrounds where they had not been to public schools much. One of these students was named Claire. Claire was a teenager, had cerebral palsy, was deaf and used a wheelchair. Claire had spent her entire life up until that year in some type of group home where she was largely ignored and left in the corner. No one knew she was deaf until she was adopted by a caring lesbian couple when she was 13. The school was small, and we all had classes with Claire and wanted to communicate with her, so the Headmaster brought in a Deaf teacher who would teach an American Sign Language class. I was instantly interested.

I cannot recall exactly which day it was, but very shortly after joining the class, I hung around after to talk to Susan, the teacher. I told her I wore hearing aids. “Oh!” She exclaimed, “You’re Deaf!” I remember being shy and starting to say, “No, I am not…” but I could not finish the sentence because Susan had wrapped her arms around me in a giant bear hug. “Welcome,” she said. It hit me in the most powerful way, which I will never forget, what Susan meant: welcome to the Deaf community. You are appreciated and understood here. I knew then that “deaf” was no longer a bad word and for the first time in years I started to care about school.

Since Claire was in my other classes, that meant her interpreter, Maj, was also with her. So even though it wasn’t for me specifically, my classes were interpreted and I struck up a friendship with Maj. Although I benefited from sign language, my teachers other than Susan didn’t really think that I needed it. I may be remembering it wrong, but it felt like I learned sign language almost instantaneously. I remember the wonderful feeling of liberation that followed my newfound method of communication. The usual worry and strain that accompanied communicating with other people had lifted, because I could do so without talking or hearing. I believe that is why learning ASL was so easy. I absolutely loved it and it made perfect sense to me. Within a short time I was fluent and helping Maj to teach ASL classes at her house.

Unfortunately, life continued to be very hard in almost every other way, and I fell into a serious depression. I ended up being sent by my father to live in Syracuse with my mother. The high school I went to luckily had a Deaf program and I had interpreters in class, and the school was actually challenging. It was hard, however, for me to maintain my Deaf identity after graduating high school. I needed a job, my community college did not have a disability services office, and surviving and getting by became more of a priority for many years. I began to forget sign language. No one I knew used it; teachers didn’t know it, jobs and medical settings never offered interpreters and I didn’t know that I had a right to them anyway. I went through many very hard years and the stress negatively impacted my health. I struggled through undergrad in New York City without accommodations, but I still got high grades because of how hard I tried, even though this often led to me being hospitalized from stress and illness. This was a difficult stage for me and is a story for another time, perhaps.

It wasn’t until I started graduate school at Syracuse University that I began to reclaim my Deaf identity. The Disability Cultural Center at Syracuse University and its director, Diane Wiener, are the reasons that I was able to once again find the Deaf world, as was Professor Wendy Harbour (now at AHEAD) and others in Disability Studies and the School of Education. I was not sure how to transition from living as a hearing person, relying on my hearing aids, back to having a Deaf identity. I was also not sure how other Deaf people would feel about me; if I was “really” Deaf any more. I was nervous about it and worried that I could not go back, but no one ever treated me like I was not really Deaf. The Deaf people I met all were exceedingly aware of how many of us grow up being forced to hear and speak, constantly going to audiologists, taking years of speech therapy and not having interpreters or being taught to sign. It wasn’t just me.

I know now that there are many ways to be a Deaf person. I capitalize the D because that indicates that I am culturally Deaf and that I speak sign language and I identify as Deaf. I have Deaf friends and professors and colleagues. When the small d is used, that refers to a more medical model of deafness, deafness as a diagnosis, not an identity. That was how I had been defined growing up, as having a medical impairment that required constant audiology, therapy and hearing tests. There were teams of people working to make me into a hearing person as much as they could. When I speak aloud today, years of speech therapy go to work and I am always conscious of how I am mouthing my words and moving my tongue. My parents did not have any experience with Deaf children and they too learned about it through the medical model of disability. My parents, like many parents of disabled children, felt very concerned and wanted what was best for me. I believe that a Disability Studies model should be used to educate parents and children about disability so it won’t seem so frightening, as if a disabled child should be made as close to an able-bodied child as possible. Being unable to hear like hearing people is not a bad thing. The feeling of those early years during which I could not hear is starting to return to me. I feel more like myself, not someone who is being stretched and pulled to fit some kind of social model of an acceptable human. I do not anticipate that I will have to leave my Deaf identity behind again and I hope that it never happens. There are many ways to be Deaf, as I said. My story is one example of a Deaf life. Yes, many of us can speak, yes some of us can often hear more than you would think. And, I have met Deaf people who do not speak aloud, and do not have hearing very much at all. I have met Deaf people who wear hearing aids and speak aloud. I have met people who only use sign. I have met people with my level of hearing loss who never wore hearing aids growing up at all and do not want them. Some people use Cochlear Implants. Some wear hearing aids, and there are many types of those. Sometimes I wear hearing aids and often I do not. There is no real way to define Deafness for someone else. We are allowed to have differing identities and to claim those identities for ourselves.

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