Gift of a Different Ability
I received my first hearing aid when I was nine. I hated my hearing aid, and that’s saying it nicely. I wore my hair down whenever I had to wear it at the insistence of a teacher or speech therapist. Once, when I accidentally jarred it during math class, the high-pitched squealing had me dying a thousand deaths. Mortified, I hit the off switch in a panic. More often than not, the plastic contraption could often be found on a shelf behind a picture or stuffed deep down into the pocket of my jeans. Once or twice, my mom fished it out of the washing machine.
Did I mention how much I hated the thing?
I did my best to blend in – to fit in and fly under the radar whenever possible. As a result, I ended up becoming the Queen of Social Bluffing. A thoughtful nod, a well-timed laugh, and conversation dominance were my survival tools. There were a couple of friends who saw right through me, and they knew what to do to bridge the communication.
If you had told me back then that I would one day become deaf and see that as a blessing, I would have laughed you to the moon… and back.
But that’s exactly what happened.
It was a summer day in August. I was water skiing on my bare feet and navigating my second attempt to cross the wake behind the boat. I tripped, cart-wheeled, and went splat into the water.
Even though everything was quiet when I climbed into the boat, reality didn’t set in until weeks later, when I left for Northern Illinois University. Ever since the fall, I had been dealing with tinnitus, a horrible roaring/clanging sound in my head. I stood at the front door of my home, getting ready to leave home, and I broke down crying.
Then there was the slow realization: I’m deaf.
My mom joined me in the crying. “You don’t have to go to college,” she said. “You can stay home, live here and get a job.”
Deep down I knew that if I didn’t walk out that door, I would be taking the easy way out. I wouldn’t be facing life head on. My oldest deaf sister had taken that route and she was still living at home. I dried the tears, grabbed my purse, and walked out the door.
When we arrived on campus, I discovered that housing had put me on a “deaf and hard of hearing” floor. I protested, loudly and rudely at the front desk, insisting that they move me to a “regular” floor. I’m not like them, I said. I don’t know any sign language.
“Give it a try,” my mom urged. “Go into this with an open mind. You might make some friends here.”
You know how moms are always right. It just took me a while to learn that.
The hands that flew back and forth were definitely foreign. I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of Japan and I didn’t understand a word of the language. I soon found others who had that same deer-in-the-headlights look, and we became friends. I then discovered the universal language of college life: A few beers make one fluent in anything.
After several months, one morning I had an epiphany. I had a choice: I could continue to cry every night and struggle in classes and remain sad about becoming deaf, or I could embrace it and learn to become the best possible deaf person I could be.
The choice was easy, but embracing it was hard. I put my hair back in a ponytail, slapped on the hearing aid and went out in public for the first time with the plastic contraption on display. I returned the useless FM system to the disability office and requested interpreters for every class. The plan was to lip read the interpreters until I could understand American Sign Language.
That was the day that becoming deaf turned into a blessing. All it took was a paradigm shift – a transformation/metamorphosis/shift in thinking, or, as Thomas Kuhn explains, a process where “one conceptual world view is replaced by another.”
Yes, indeed, going deaf was a blessing. I stopped trying to fit in, and instead, I learned to stand out. A whole new world opened up; one where I was comfortable being myself. I am deaf. I am Deaf. I learned to embrace the gift, to celebrate the unique difference which makes me who I am.
Lee Woodruff speaks of the gift of a different ability in her book, Perfectly Imperfect. When the doctor uttered the words: your daughter is deaf; Lee’s first thought was, “Who will ever ask a little deaf girl to the prom?” In the years of learning how to navigate the paths on the parenting journey, Lee experienced a paradigm shift of her own:
“Back then, I hadn’t really understood the overarching capacity people have to adapt, to be patient, and to recover. I hadn’t factored in the resilience of the human spirit, the very real healing powers of time passing, the grace and perspective we find in moments of repose, and the ability of the soul to regenerate.
In those long-ago days I saw a daughter with a disability. Now I see a beautiful, engaging person with a different ability, one that has blessed her with extra gifts and special perceptions.”
Looking back, I’m so thankful for the paradigm shift which occurred after becoming deaf because it allowed me to raise my three deaf and hard of hearing kids with a very different attitude than the one I had growing up. While we’ve certainly had challenging days with IEP battles, access issues and the delightful hormones that come with growing up, we’ve also had many days where I’ve reflected on these questions along the journey:
“What are the gifts my child brings to the family/world?” and “What can I celebrate?”
Find Karen Putz @DeafMom on Twitter