a young man in dreadlocks
Deaf & HH Adults

Tony Decha-Umphai: My Mom Taught Me to be Likeable

I was born and raised in Nashville, TN. I was born hearing, so I acquired speech at an earlier age. At the age of 6 years old, my hearing began to drop and my parents took me to an audiologist for a hearing test. After failing some of the hearing tests I began wearing those over-the-ear hearing aids through elementary, middle, and high school. I went to elementary school from kindergarten to 6th grade at Eakin Elementary adjacent to Vanderbilt University. During that time, I was surrounded by hearing friends (including that my family is hearing) but I had a chance to experience mainstream society. I was enrolled in special education classes and needed some tutoring to catch up with school work. While I struggled, it wasn’t always perfect but I managed to pass all courses.

Tony as a young child

I went to middle school and high school from 7th to 12th grade in Bangkok, Thailand at an International English Speaking School. It was a private school where uniforms were required to be worn. Again, I was put into mainstream education and didn’t have an access to captions or interpreters so I relied on classmates and their notes to help get me by. By 12th grade, my hearing was profound but I still wore hearing aids and struggled throughout high school. There was one teacher who was a hard head but I guess she wasn’t open minded about my disability and gave me a hard time about it. 

I had to advocate for myself. I asked her to speak slowly and face me when she’s talking to the whole class and to have someone take notes for me due to not clearly understanding her 100%. Back then, the school didn’t have any real-time captioning, plus I didn’t know any sign language and the school didn’t have interpreters.

I also advocated by sitting in front of the class and looking for a classmate who would share notes with me. Most teachers understood my need for accommodations and were okay with it (except for that one hard headed teacher until she finally knocked some sense into herself. That took a while.)

Also, in 7th grade, there was a bully who wouldn’t stop picking on me. So one day it ended in an alteration to which it became more of a physical fight but nothing too brutal. The next day he shook my hand and apologized and from that point it was no more bullying then. But I think I grew popular in high school due to the fact that, in many ways, there were high school girls who really enjoyed talking to me. Didn’t realize the extent of it until people voted you for being most liked or most musically talented or most attractive, etc. I got voted into most attractive from all the girls in the same grade. Didn’t expect that but was pretty surprised by that! 

Then came college where I went back to Nashville, TN and studied at MTSU with a concentration in a pre-architecture major. Did 2 years there and then transferred to the University of Tennessee Knoxville with a major in architecture for 5 years. While at UT Knoxville, I didn’t realize I had accessibility until they provided CART for me while taking classes. From that point it was one of the best education I received as I was able to learn and absorb more knowledge through CART. During this time at UT Knoxville from 2002-2007, it was a turning point where my hearing aids weren’t helping me so I decided to try and take them off for a while to see how I’m able to concentrate better. Because at times, wearing hearing aids mentally worn me down and it was usually difficult to concentrate on certain subjects. 

What my parents did right in helping me to gain confidence was giving me independence in socializing with my hearing peers. They knew my twin brother was there for me as well during hard times. My mother was there when it was difficult at times. She taught me to be likeable. Surprisingly because I was likeable, people respected me more.

After graduating there, I came back to Nashville to work for my first architecture firm with an architecture firm who specialized in retail and commercial architecture. This was from 2007-2009 and then the economy hit us during the 2009 recession. Unfortunately I was laid off in 2009 and didn’t find work for about a year and a half. Then I found a side job at Lipscomb university working as a stock clerk and food prep worker. The stock clerk job was physically demanding as you’re mostly lifting heavy stuff but I did that just fine and it was nice to get away from the white collar jobs once in a while. But after one year there I was determined to find a job in my major and there was one architecture company that hired me who specialize in healthcare architecture. 

While with that healthcare architecture company, it was a struggle at first having the employees get used to me but I managed and got through it just fine. And to this day I am still working with my firm and it has been almost eight years since working for them. 

I will say I got by with everyone when I was forward about my profound hearing loss/deafness. Everyone understood it just fine and we kept the nature of our work professional in that matter. It taught me that as long as you let the other person know what you understand or can’t understand and what you need them to do, then it helps them to accommodate you and your needs. With the growth of technology, things are changing and becoming more accessible. So living in this mainstream society, life has been going smoother since I’ve learned to be more open about my hearing loss. 


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