“I want to be a fireman, Mom.”
At one of our Illinois Hands & Voices parent meetings, a mom shared a conversation she had with her five-year-old son during bedtime the night before. Like many young kids, her deaf son was excitedly sharing his vision of what he wanted to be when he grew up.
His mom, however, started crying as she shared the story. Her voice cracked.
“I know he can’t be a fireman,” she said.
I had news for her. Just two towns over from where she lived, there was a full-time fireman who happened to be deaf. Out east, Neil McDevitt worked as a volunteer firefighter for several years. Over in Pennsylvania, Mark Kite is not just a fireman, he’s a fire chief. And yes, he’s deaf.
Suddenly, with this new information, the mom’s whole paradigm for her son changed. She could now see the future in possibilities, instead of limits. Someone else had blazed the way. Yes, her son could be a fireman if he wanted to. The journey might not be an easy one, there might be barriers along the way, but the choice was there for her son if he wanted it.
When I was growing up, I had very little exposure to deaf and hard of hearing adults. Sure, I read about a few people here and there. There was that Miracle Worker movie with Helen Keller. Beethoven was deaf. The Incredible Hulk was hard of hearing. The people on TV were far removed from my every day life.
From the time I was 11, I wanted to write. In high school, I took a journalism class. I had visions of working for a major newspaper. That idea was soon crushed as I struggled through one interview after another trying to get the story I needed. It was difficult for me to accurately gather facts and information and attempt to write notes at the same time.
When I became deaf as a teen, I struggled even more. I transferred from a community college to a large university. During a session with a career counselor, I casually mentioned I wanted to become a Labor and Delivery nurse. The counselor gently but firmly guided me to an easier path, one with less communication challenges. I went down the path of becoming a Rehabilitation Counselor, something I really didn’t want to do. I attempted to quit college three times but each time, others encouraged me to stick it out.
After I graduated from college, I met a nurse who was hard of hearing. To top it off, she worked in the surgical unit at the local hospital, handing instruments to doctors. A small pang of regret bubbled up inside of me. I decided to return to school and study ultrasound. Fortunately, I went to talk to the Director of Nuclear Medicine at the hospital and shadowed an ultrasound tech for a few hours. By the end of the day, I knew that was not the career path I wanted. I ended up volunteering to care for boarder babies at the hospital and studied to become a doula. The ability to support moms during birth was just what I wanted to do.
As the years passed by, I met doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, pharmacists, engineers, film animators, business owners, pilots, and of course, more nurses. All of them D/deaf or hard of hearing.
Imagine what my life might have been like had I known all of this while growing up. I might have grown up seeing the possibilities instead of the limits.
Lydia Denworth, a mom of a deaf son, discovered the powerful influence of deaf and hard of hearing adults in her son’s life while at a basketball game. During a game between Texas Tech and the Brooklyn Nets, Lydia’s son spied a cochlear implant on Luke Adams, a Texas player. At that very moment, everything shifted for her son. His dream of playing in the NBA suddenly became even more real of a possibility just from seeing Luke on the court. Lydia introduced her son to more deaf and hard of hearing athletes–the Gallaudet football team, Derrick Coleman from the Seattle Seahawks. Lydia writes about this experience in her Huffington Post article, Seeing is Believing:
Role models matter. It’s as simple as that. My husband and I tell Alex regularly to go for his dreams. But the power of seeing a string of successful deaf athletes in action has done more to drive that message home than anything we could say. Sometimes seeing really is believing.
With three deaf and hard of hearing kids of my own, I wanted the same thing for my kids. I wanted them to meet and know as many deaf and hard of hearing adults I could connect them with while growing up. I also wanted them to know that if they had a dream that had never been done before, maybe they had to be the first deaf or hard of hearing person to make it a reality.
If you look back to the early 1900’s, you’ll discover the first pilot to fly a plane from New York to California was Cal Rogers. And guess what… Cal was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other. The first woman to swim the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle, grew up hard of hearing and later became deaf. Oh, and the internet that we all use so much? You can thank Vin Cerf who is known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet” and is the Vice President of Google. Vint is hard of hearing and served on the board of Gallaudet University. In just about every profession, you can find a D/deaf/hard of hearing person out there. Many of them are just going about their jobs virtually unknown.
At Hands & Voices, we’ve added a new pilot program that connects D/HH Guides with families early in the parenting journey. This pilot program gives families a chance to meet a variety of D/HH adults and ask questions. You can find more information here:
As for your kid, whatever their dream may be, encourage the possibilities rather than the limits. You never know what’s possible. If your kid has a talent, skill, ability, or passion that simply hasn’t been seen or done before–perhaps your kid has to blaze the way.
Maybe your kid has to be the first.
Karen is the author of “The Passionate Lives of Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.”