Leala Holcomb: Appreciating the Deaf Experience

Leala and their family

Since most people in this world cannot imagine their lives without speech and sound and believe they cannot function without them, I thought it would be cool to share something I think you would find remarkable. Being a deaf person myself, I have always found it natural, even easy, to navigate the whole wide world without sound. It never crossed my mind that sound was integral to living my life “fully,” and that my life up to this point had been “lesser” because I do not hear or speak. When I interact with hearing people, I find their fixation on speech and sound quite foreign!

There is space where detachment from sound exists, and it can be found in the deaf community. This community I was raised in has formed a climate of sincere indifference towards speech and sound. I can understand why this level of disassociation is upsetting to some hearing people because their whole lives revolve around speech and sound. When hearing people see deaf people being happily deaf, it goes against the core essence of who they are, their knowledge, and their sensory experiences. I see hearing people around me often expressing bewilderment, exasperation, or even anger towards my love for my deaf identity. I cannot help but wonder if they feel we are invalidating what is most important to them. Noticing, observing, and witnessing this is mind-boggling!

In my community, I was taught that deaf people’s inner worth and measures of success have nothing to do with how well we can hear or speak. So, when I am around other signing people, whether they can hear or speak does not cross my mind. I often never know! Over the years in my interactions with people outside the deaf community, I have had my share of encountering beliefs and values being out of alignment with mine. For example, hearing people often ask me when they first meet me, “How well can you hear? How well can you speak?” And then, there comes the lingering assumption that I am limited in my life because I don’t hear or speak. 

I have seen hearing people make comments like these: “Deaf people need to hear and speak so they can interact with hearing people, travel around the world, have a good job, and so on…” I have also met many deaf people raised in the hearing community believing this about themselves, too. I have seen them say: “If I didn’t hear or speak, I would not be able to play football,” “If I didn’t hear or speak, I would not be able to travel to Greece,” and “If I didn’t hear or speak, I would not be able to learn Spanish.” This baffles me because it makes no sense to me based on my living experience. I played sports all my life; I hitchhiked from Mexico to Argentina for thirteen months; and I learned Spanish. None of these experiences had anything to do with speech or sound! Why did they think such things?

One of the common things deaf children raised in the hearing community would say to me after sharing their names is “I am not deaf. I am hard of hearing. I can hear and speak,” or “I am deaf, but I can hear and speak well.” This always throws me off. Why is this information relevant? I am deaf, and I can’t hear and speak. You are deaf, and you can hear and speak. What does our hearing/speaking (or the lack thereof) have to do with who we are, our worth, our interests, and our passions in life? Why is it the starting point of our conversation?

In the hearing community, there is a hidden (or maybe not so hidden) ideology that speech and sound are what make a person fully human. I find this ideology really strange because it does not match my living experience. Many of my signing deaf friends and family members have exciting, fun, and fulfilling lives. They have jobs, friends, families, children, and passions. They travel around the world and form their own businesses. Why is there so much negativity in hearing people’s perceptions of deaf people? They are entirely unnecessary!

A family sitting on the side of a cliff

Whenever deaf people face hardships in life, we attribute them to: (1) normal human experience (life is hard!) & (2) hearing people’s ignorance, biases, & bigotry (making life even harder). Yet, many hearing people think I have a harder life *just because* I do not hear and speak. I think this is one of the biggest misconceptions hearing people, especially hearing professionals, have about deaf people. Consequently, this misconception is passed over to hearing families with deaf children. Now, we have deaf children believing their lives will be a tragedy without speech and sound.

When looking at “the deaf experience,” how deaf people experience the world is actually very different from how hearing people think we experience it. The way we experience it, how I would describe it, is being part of a vibrant community of “deaf badasses” who challenge the hearing-centric notion of what it means to be human. It is literally the only space where humans can explore what it is like to be detached from the value of speech and sound. I am honored to be a part of it! Let’s pause and appreciate the existence of this community.

My name is Leala Holcomb and I am 33 years old. I was raised in the Bay Area in California where I attended an ASL/English bilingual school called California School for the Deaf. I used to be an early childhood educator before deciding to return to school to obtain my doctoral degree in Education. Currently, I am a postdoctoral researcher working remotely for the University of Tennessee while living in Maryland with my hearing partner and two step-children (one deaf and one hearing). I wrote about my experience growing up without speech and sound on Twitter; I am happy to share this with the Hands & Voices community.