Here’s the story of how I embarrassed the Vice President of the United States.
I didn’t do it on purpose.
He held a town hall meeting at the government organization where I worked.
An opportunity to say something came up and I raised my hand.
He called on me.
It came up that I was deaf. At the end of our conversation, he signed, “Thank you.”
“I don’t know sign language.”
I didn’t want to embarrass him. I wanted to educate everyone that not all deaf people know ASL. We’re as diverse as any other group.
Where the Journey Began
I’m the youngest of three children by a gap. My siblings are 10 and 13 years older than me. It helped that I came last. It allowed my parents to figure out something was different about me at six months old.
Sure enough, the audiogram confirmed I had been born hearing-free. The medical term would be profoundly deaf. World Health Organization lists four levels of deafness: mild, moderate, severe, and profound.
My hearing range falls between 90 dB and beyond 120 dB. As a comparison, a lawnmower is 90 dB and a jackhammer is 120 dB.
At the time I was a baby, the speech-language pathologists told my parents oral was the standard. That meant learning how to lipread and lots of speech therapy. They equipped me with my first hearing aid around 11 months old.
So, I wore a heavy deck of cards on my chest held in place by a case with straps. The cords connected the hearing aid to ear molds inside my ears.
By the time I was 9, I leveled up to a behind-the-ear hearing aid. No more hearing aid on my chest! Now I could wear cool t-shirts with pictures.
A hearing device makes me a better lipreader. For example, Mom, mop, bop, pop all look the same on the lips without sound. Still, even with all that, lipreaders only catch one-third of what’s said on average.
While pregnant with my third child, I had the opportunity to decide whether to pursue a cochlear implant. I thought long and hard about it. Once I go cochlear, I lose whatever hearing I had left. Not that there was much to salvage.
Figuring this would be my last baby, I decided to go for the implant after he was born. The best part about the cochlear implant? No more feedback! I can’t tell you how many embarrassing moments I’ve had because of the squeals from my hearing aids. The room would be silent and suddenly, my hearing aid would scream.
The downside is that I have a magnet in my head. This means I cannot have an MRI. This isn’t an issue with the newer cochlear implants. All in all, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between my hearing aid and cochlear implant.
This is the biggest misconception especially with people who are born deaf. I’m taking an online course on digital accessibility. Of course, I read the deaf section with great interest.
Then I come across the following line:
“For people born deaf, their first language is sign language.”
Another time, I watched someone’s presentation online. She’s a late-deafened adult. Here’s what one slide said:
“Deaf with a capital D means a person who culturally identifies as a deaf person.” It goes on to describe two traits of a capital D Deaf person and one is “Born deaf.”
Being born deaf does not automatically make someone a member of the Deaf community. Nor does it mean someone who isn’t born deaf can’t become a member.
Big D and Little d
Besides, does little d and Big D matter anymore? Shouldn’t we be inclusive of everyone and be one big Deaf community? Everyone is welcome regardless of their background and language.
Bringing everyone into the big D fold doesn’t affect the Deaf community. It’s still a community with its own beautiful language.
Think about it this way. Black with a capital B refers to people in a racial, ethnic, or cultural context. Doesn’t that apply to the Deaf? The cultural aspect may not apply to me. But it does in a racial sense. Typically, race is based on birth.
Granted, with the flux of children getting cochlear implants, the Deaf community worries about losing their language. And they’re protective of it. I can’t speak for any other Deaf people. We’re all diverse as any other group.
I’ve gotten to know three deaf women in my life. And none of us is the same. One signs and doesn’t speak. One grew up oral like me, learned ASL as an adult to make it her preferred language, and went to grad school at Gallaudet. And finally, one went to a residential school for the deaf. But they did not sign at this school.
Four women. Four different paths. We’re all good at what we do. We all aim to make the world a little better place. We volunteer. We have families. We give back.
Ask Rather Than Assume
A fellow deaf person told me about the time he made a doctor’s appointment. When he arrived, there was an ASL interpreter waiting for him. He explained that he didn’t need the interpreter. The interpreter got paid for the time.
The event coordinators for several accessibility conferences contacted me to let me know I’d be speaking. They provided details about the conference. And proceeded to let me know they’d get an ASL interpreter lined up for me.
I let them know I didn’t need the interpreter. They apologized profusely. The point is that even people in the accessibility world make the assumption that someone profoundly Deaf uses ASL.
Assumptions are costly. A better way to approach these situations is to ask instead of assuming.
Captions are a good example of accommodations that benefit people who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing. In talking to people about the reason they use captions while watching videos, I’ve gotten all kinds of answers.
Here are the reasons people who aren’t deaf use captions:
- It helps people focus especially those with ADHD and processing disorders.
- They have the sound off for many reasons.
- It allows them to multitask.
- It lets them catch all of the audio.
- Some with no differences say captions help in different ways.
Let’s make asking about accommodations standard regardless if someone does or doesn’t have a disability or difference. When we ask everyone if they need accommodations, it won’t be an awkward thing anymore.
Diversity makes everything better. Let’s celebrate our differences.