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I haven’t always been deaf.
I was born with some hearing as far as we know, although the details become blurry after entering elementary school (braces and snap-on track pants have that effect on long term memory).
My family recalls thinking that I was the requisite flibbertygibbit: always 5 counts ahead in every leopard-lycra-covered-Jazz recital dance and never quite learning how to pronounce certain words.
We still aren’t exactly sure how or when I lost my hearing, but all we know is: 1) I was finally wearing hearing aids in my late teens, 2) I likely lost it from my progressive chronic disease and overlooked infections, and 3) I am a masterful lip-reader.
My weird aptitude at lip-reading basically means that I can fool almost anyone I come in contact with. (I can also cheat at board games and aid in translating gossip at every televised Royal family event.)
Reading lips is sort of like being born with rhythm or the ability to sing: You either get it or you don’t. There is no rhyme or reason to why some deaf beings can read lips, make conversation assumptions or guess at subtext (because, yes, at least 30% of our discussions feature my brain simply making shit up).
Your degree of deafness has little to do with how deaf you appear to the outside world. I am now profoundly deaf and don’t benefit from hearing aids at all, yet I can pretend to be hearing the majority of the time.
Many of my deaf friends have far more hearing than I, but little interest in reading lips, little talent in grasping dialogue, or little incentive toward speech. A lot of it is personality… a lot of it is natural talent… and a lot of it is chance.
Unfortunately, as soon as I became more vocal about being deaf, people begin to underestimate my intelligence. One time I fingerspelled the word “kismet” to a friend and she balked: “I have never seen a deaf person use that word.” (Where my Yiddish deafies at?)
Most of the time when someone meets me, they say one of two things: “But I can understand you” and “But you can talk?”
Contrary to popular belief, deafness and muteness are not one in the same. Although there are many deaf people who can’t speak, there are many who can (and “wanting to” has nothing to do with it).
Deaf culture -- like any other culture -- has its own dividing factors. For a while, I felt as if I wasn’t deaf enough. I decided to stop using my voice as much as possible, because as soon as another person realized they could comprehend me, the conversation sped forward without ever looking back.
Many don’t realize, but our vocals are just like my abs the majority of the time: They decondition without use. The more my vocal quality began to deteriorate, the more I no longer fit into the surrounding world as well.
Basically, it breaks down like this: Some deaf people sound deaf and some don’t. Some can regain and retrain their vocal quality (as I later did, which is super hard when you can’t actually hear yourself). And some… actually, most deaf people don’t give a damn. Frankly, they shouldn’t.
I am lucky in that I was post-lingually deaf and am equally as fascinated with speech as I am with Frida Kahlo. Just because you can understand us, however, doesn’t always mean that we can understand you.
Sure I’m sort of a lip-reading ninja -- spotting accents and seeing through beards with laser-precision -- but it’s exhausting.
My partner is perpetually feeling frustrated when I become immersed in a Mensa newsletter (Allure) or The Year of Magical Thinking (my cell phone). It’s not that I don’t want to listen to him. It’s that deafness sometimes makes you feel like sinking into your skull while your eyes bleed.
Most people can look around, twiddle their thumbs, carry on with work, or doodle on a notepad when engaging in a lecture of any sort… I am forced to keep constant focus on either the opposing party, an interpreter, or both.
Even though I didn’t grow up in a deaf family or with fluent ASL, I soaked in sign language as if I’d been starving for decades. It came as swiftly to my fingers as English to my tongue (something that still baffles me since my language-proficient husband will never be deaf-level fluent, and most interpreters still have a distinct “hearing accent”).
I certainly have my own ASL intonation, but there was no doubt that this language was meant for me, and had been missing all my life. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have to wonder why everyone at the table was laughing. I was in on the punch line.
Often, I wish I could just stop talking again. Life is infinitely harder to navigate as a deaf person when no one understands the communicative need to meet me halfway.
Even if I voice these needs in the most appeasing of manners, sometimes the mere presence of a voice is enough to sway the concept entirely. Don’t get me wrong; I love my language, my social heritage and myself.
Yet, even after diving headlong into Deaf culture and coming out the other side, I basically have realized that it’s impossible to fit cleanly into either realm. I am never going to be hearing enough to not need accommodations, and I am never going to be Deaf enough to please a narrow few.
But if I can take anything away from my deafness, it is that sometimes it’s OK to just be who you are, know your own intelligence, look the other way… and not give a damn.