People often ask me to share my experiences as a deaf child expecting to hear tales of loneliness and frustration, when really the opposite is true. I had a great childhood. I’m sure in elementary school I was made fun of and ostracized, but I didn’t care or noticed because I was often too wrapped up in my own world. I have a type of personality where I didn’t need a whole lot of friends or approval from others. I just needed one good friend. All through my school years I always had at least one or two best friends. I had Nikki in my elementary and middle school years and Katy in my high school years. Looking back, I realized that Nikki had a learning disability and was also in special education in elementary school. I never saw her as learning disabled. I viewed her as my best friend. Nikki and I became best friends inadvertently. She was on my track team and needed rides to and from school and I had a car. We got to know each other pretty well on those car rides and started hanging out together. More importantly, I don’t think these friends saw me as deaf or hard of hearing, they saw me as their best friend too.
I also had a best friend as a young child, Lucas. We are still close friends today. Back then, my speech wasn’t very intelligible as my hearing loss was not properly diagnosed until I was 4 . But Lucas and I managed to communicate and to have a lot of fun together. Our parents lived in a married student housing complex at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The housing complex had a unique configuration that promoted interaction among the families, which included common yards where children were contained and could play safely. The Wells lived next door. Stephanie, Lucas’s mother told me this story of her first introduction to me. She said that shortly after we moved in next door, I walked into her house through the sliding back door and plopped myself in front of their TV and watched Sesame Street. There was no captioning back then and I don’t know what I got out of that show without hearing anything. Maybe I just enjoyed the visual treat of Sesame Street with their colorful characters and antics. Apparently I visited quite often as my mother was frequently studying. Lucas and I also liked to climb trees. We had huge 100 ft or more trees out front of our condos. I remember climbing nearly to the top to check out the view. We spent hours up there and it was one of my favorite places to be. I would also explore the fields nearby. Often times other kids would join me. We were very lucky that we didn’t hurt ourselves during our excursions.
Looking back at these early years, I now realize that my parents and others often let me explore on my own; I don’t remember being reprimanded often. I would often roam the entire complex and I had lots of playmates throughout. I have no idea how I communicated with them. I just know that I was happy. I don’t really recall difficult issues growing up either due to selective memory or because I had so many positive experiences in my childhood that when I encountered difficult times, I was able to persevere. Through my own experiences, I learned that I had the power to make situations better.
One of my father’s favorite stories about me is my first day of school. He proudly put me on the bus and was very excited to meet me at the end of the day to hear how it went. Imagine his reaction when the bus driver told him that his kindergarten daughter was banned from riding the school bus. He reported that I was running all over the school bus and never sat down. My father promptly explained to the bus driver about my hearing loss and provided strategies for communicating with me and we proceeded to do a practice run on the bus to explain to me how I should behave.
My mother told me that I did not like being pulled out of class to receive speech therapy or special services. I didn’t want to miss out on anything in class. When I was young, I drove a few speech therapists crazy. However, my mother feels that back then speech therapy was more drill based and consequently, very boring. There was one speech therapist that I liked because she made therapy fun. I have very decent speech as result. So the take home message for educators is, if you want to reach a child, make it fun by appealing to their playful nature. Children want to learn and build confidence to feel that they can be successful. I’m finding that this is the case with my own son who has a learning disability. I’ll tell him that the difficulties that he is experiencing has nothing to do with intellect but with how his brain is wired and it is our job to find the key that enables him to learn, and equally as important, that learning is a skill that must be practiced.
When I was in middle school, I had detention because I skipped school to write a paper. I was planning to go to school later when I was done. My friend waited for me to finish because we usually walked to school together and somehow we decided to play instead of going to school. As a consequence I got detention. Which of course, put me in with other kids who were probably more of a habitual delinquent than I. We were all walking home afterwards and a couple of the kids had knives and started slashing car tires. I really didn’t know what to do, stay with them or walk home alone. The next thing I remember is that all the kids start running off and I was caught because I was the last one to figure out what is going on. The irony is that the person that caught me became the city mayor a few years later and I dated his son. The awkward moment came when he had taken us to a brunch at the country club and he reminded me of the incident to see if I remembered. I thought that it must be “water under the bridge” and forgiven. because he was willing to let his son date me. That is probably the only time I ever questioned my self worth; whether I was a “delinquent” and the impact of my hearing loss. However, it was just a fleeting moment because my very next thought was “Hey, I must have a lot to offer, because in spite of these two “strikes” against me, I’m worthy of dating his son and being around.
Another rite of passage “ah-ha” moment occurred in high school, I was invited to a get together at the movie theater to see “Live and Die in LA.” I was excited because it was with all the popular kids and I thought, “Wow I’m considered a part of the in-crowd.” There was a lot of talking and joking and I couldn’t follow any of the conversation. It was probably one of the few times when I felt isolated and unable to participate due to my hearing loss. That was when I realized I prefered small groups with a few friends. This was my comfort zone. It had nothing to do with being popular or what others thought of me. I realized what was important was were I felt at ease and happy. I found more joy in smaller groups because it was easier to follow and participate in conversation and I wouldn’t feel embarrassed if I asked for them to repeat things. Which I often did, never thinking it was a negative thing to do. Because I thought it was normal to ask for repetition when needed, or certain accommodation such was having people walk on the left side of me which was my better ear, I exuded confidence with who I was which made others feel at ease too. I think if a person is nervous or uncomfortable about their hearing loss, their hearing friends may also be uncomfortable.
I recall consciously developing coping strategies in sports to ensure success. For instance, in my first game of high school volleyball, I was the starting server. I had the ball and was waiting for the whistle to blow, but because I was so focused on where I wanted to serve the ball I never looked at the referee and missed the whistle. The next thing I knew I’m being asked to give the ball to the other team. After that incident, the coaches and I came up with a signal for me to use. However, in the classroom, I don’t recall having to actively develop coping strategies to ensure my access. One of the reasons for this is that I think my mother did such a good job advocating for my needs, there was little that I needed to do. Also during the 70’s and 80’s, instruction was teacher directed with little interaction between students or group learning situations. Learning was easier since I only had to rely on the teacher for content. Nowadays, education has shifted to include both teacher-led learning and peer-learning. Peer-learning is more difficult because the small group discussion means all students have to learn to be good communicators and the student with hearing loss needs be aware of strategies that are effective for them to access communication, process what they hear, and participate in the conversations. To do this successfully they have to advocate for themselves. This requires a level of metacognition that students often don’t develop until late middle school and high school. Thus parents and teachers must actively and overtly teach these skills and help students develop that awareness.
As an adult I continue to struggle with communication issues and have to consciously work at being an effective listener and communicator. We are expected to perform the required job and family responsibilities and tasks, regardless of disabilities or difficulties. Therefore, it is imperative that we are aware of the strategies and accommodations that are most effective for us and that we advocate for ourselves to use them. Accommodations such as using an FM system, an interpreter, or asking people to slow down in their turn taking by identifying themselves before speaking, give us ample opportunities to participate in our daily life situations.
Parents of children with hearing loss often ask me what is the one best thing my mother did for me. My mother often used what she likes to call “guided failure”. My mother gave me a lot of freedom to figure things out and solve my problems on my own. When a solution or approach didn’t work out, my mother would have a discussion with me; asking what I did, what happened as a result, did I the like outcome and if not what I could do differently for next time. I feel that this parenting strategy is effective for all children whether or not they have any special challenges.
A note from Hands & Voices:
Jennifer DeConde passed away peacefully Thursday, July 29, 2021 surrounded by friends and family after an incredibly courageous, optimistic and unwavering fight. Jennifer served on the board of PA Hands & Voices and is the daughter of Hands & Voices co-founder, Cheryl Johnson.
Another H & V article by Jennifer: Being a Deaf Mom