Deaf: Not a Four Letter Word ~ Helen Cotton Leiser

My  oldest daughter Ashlin was identified with profound hearing loss when she was  18 months old. The news knocked us off our feet. It was completely unexpected.  No one in our family has a hearing loss, nor did anyone we knew. Until I became  involved with Hands & Voices, I carefully used the term ‘hearing loss’ when  it came to both my girls. My involvement with Hands & Voices meant opening  my vocabulary to include such words as “deaf.”

In  my opening comments at our first statewide conference this past spring, I  admitted for the first time how difficult it was for me to use the word “deaf”  when it came to my girls. I was personally surprised by how emotional and  meaningful that one little word was to me as I admitted out loud to a roomful  of strangers, and for the first time, that I didn’t like saying “deaf.” Deaf.  For some, it’s just a word. For many it’s who they are. For hearing parents,  this one little word can be scary: not just new to their vocabulary, but a  reminder that their child is different from them. The word brings us face to  face with the unknown. My saying “hearing loss” felt less foreign to me, easier  to my heart and I find that when I use the word “deaf” in public I get a more  pitied look from the person I am talking to. Deaf to me meant a world I didn’t  know, a community that might not accept our choices.

Deaf.  Both of my girls are deaf. They are also smart, funny, silly, caring, generous,  snuggly. Oh, and they have cute little girl butts! Deaf. Why is it that this  part of them stands out the most? Why is it that this one word raises so much  controversy, so much angst? And if I really want to talk about controversy,  then I just need to mention the words “cochlear implant!” The use of hearing  aids amongst hard of hearing individuals doesn’t seem to entice such  controversy. Why is that? But cochlear implants can bring hostility—the  eviction of someone from the Deaf community.

At  the conference, former H&V board member Janet Johanson stated that her  bilateral cochlear implants are a “tool,” similar to using the myriad of other  technological tools available to deaf/hard of hearing individuals. As a parent,  I have always looked at cochlear implants as a communication tool that can help  my daughters be with and part of the greater community. They are still deaf.  They just have this incredible technology that let’s them talk and sing and  hear birds sing. Blind people don’t seem to have such an exclusive culture or  so much emotion put into their sensory loss; why does deafness cause so much  emotion?

I  wonder how my girls will feel about deafness, the Deaf culture and community in  the future. Will they feel like they are part of the deaf world or hearing  world? Or, because they were implanted at young ages, and attend school with  hearing kids and kids with hearing loss and are part of the H&V community,  will that line become blurred for them? Will it matter? No one can tell me what  life will be like for my kids since only in the last few years have children been  getting implanted so early.

Question:  Should they define their life as being deaf or hearing? Or should they define  their life by the type of women they are going to be, the role they will play  in our community, and in the world? Call me naïve (and I very well might be  when it comes to this!) but as their parent I want their lives to be defined by  the human beings they will grow up to be. I want them to do amazing things with  their lives. I want them to make a difference. I want them to be happy, to  believe, to have depth in their character. My girls get to experience the  beauty of quiet and of sound which I think can give them a unique perspective on  things, and I think it will make them better women, and will make them more  attuned to the world.

I  know their deafness has made me a  better person and I thank them for that. I have been able to meet really  incredible people from around the world because of them.

My  girls are deaf. I am grateful. They are healthy, they are smart, they are fun  to be with. As some incredible deaf adults have told me, I am making too much  of this. Maybe I am. But as I meet more parents and deaf individuals, I come up  with more questions. My experience with deafness is limited; I have more to  learn and I am grateful that I get to learn more.

Deaf.  I no longer feel threatened by this one word.