Holy crap. Did you just say I’m normal?!?

I first met my friend Ali about six years ago.  Ali is the volunteer manager for a Leadership Conference I participate in.  I marched right up to her at the end of the volunteer session and said, “I’m Jenny.  I’m deaf, just so you know.  I probably shouldn’t be on registration.”  The next year I told her, “Oh yeah. I’m the deaf one, remember?”  This was not the first or second time I made this bold declaration.  Eight years ago, before even applying to my job, I went to my now boss and said, “I’m deaf.  I don’t want to waste your time with an interview if you feel that this will be a problem.”  She later told me that it was my forthrightness and boldness that tipped the scales in my favor.

I do this all the time.  Mumbling store clerk?  Mumbling Waitress? Trouble on the phone when the other person has it on speaker?  “Oh, I’m deaf.  Can you please speak up?” I even do it at parties when I’m introduced to someone new.  “Just a heads up- I’m deaf so please look at me when you talk.”  Somehow, it’s become no big deal to me to divulge this information.

I spent so much time as a kid feeling like my hearing loss was something to be ashamed of.  It set me apart.  It made me different.  It meant I was “disabled”- I freaking HATE that word.  It made me work harder to be better, be smarter, be the best at everything.  This has made me strive to overachieve- and I do.  In the fourth grade, the kids in class called me “the walking dictionary.”  I’ve always had something to prove.  I hid my hearing loss as best I could.  After all, I was plenty attuned to the looks my mother got or the problems that she faced just walking out the door on a daily basis.  But me?  I was a chameleon. I could blend.

As is wont to happen, the older I got (and ironically as I lost more hearing), the less I really gave a crap what other people thought about me and I accepted that my hearing loss was a part of me and that it really didn’t matter.  It seemed that I was being blasé about it and just mentioning it as an, “oh, heads up!” sort of way made it no big deal.

This morning, Ali (I’m now her second in command) and I were attending a breakfast leadership seminar led by none other than the enigmatic Vernice Armour, the first African American female fighter pilot.  Vernice asked us to take a minute and jot down our goals/aspirations, etc.  So, I wrote the usual “Open my own fabric design company,” and “Start a small business branding consultation firm (er…I also wrote, “STOP PROCRASTINATING.”).’”  The last thing I wrote? “I want to be an example for others like me, be an advocate and work to bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing world.”

Ali (such a snoop!  Kidding, Ali. ;) ) saw what I wrote and at the break she asked me about it- about this gap and why I felt that I had to bridge it.   She went on to say that she always found it interesting that I label myself so quickly, especially when it’s something so invisible.  She pointed out that technically, i’m moderately hard of hearing and that I could probably just tell people that I was sometimes have a little trouble and might need to ask them to repeat themselves.  She was genuinely curious- she wasn’t being judgmental or negative.

I told her that it felt like something people should know so that they’d know why if I didn’t respond.  I went on to say that on some level, perhaps it’s also about me saying, “See?  The stigma isn’t always right!”  So many people I know have never come across someone my age with a hearing loss.  I’m an anomaly.  I’m their first live impression.  All they know is what they’ve heard or seen on TV, etc.  That stuff? Not always good.  Hell- the school curriculum probably still teaches kids that Helen Keller was called, “deaf and dumb.”  When I’ve told people I’ve had countless, “Are you kidding?!” reactions.  I’ve been accused of lying.  I’ve gotten, “Wow!  You’re not what I expected!”

Then Ali said a few things that blew my mind.  She pointed out that by labeling myself (it didn’t even really hit me that I was labeling myself!)when people would otherwise not know meant that I was setting myself apart right off the bat.  She told me that she doesn’t see me as different and that to her, I sometimes just need things repeated.  That was when she dropped the bomb- “To me, you’re normal!”  I’m pretty sure my eyes were huge at that point.  I don’t think i’ve ever considered myself normal- not as a child of profoundly deaf parents and certainly not as a hard of hearing person.  But, what if I am?  What if I’ve been limiting myself by defining myself in such a way? What if I’ve been using that as a default setting so I can “check out?”  What if I stopped answering the question “What is it like to be deaf/hard of hearing” and starting answering the question, “What does it mean to be me?”  My hearing loss is a very small part of who I am.  It is not the sum of my parts.  Maybe I am normal?  Relatively speaking, of course.

I will always be an advocate for deaf and hard of hearing people.  How can I not be?  I will continue to  make jokes about my hearing mishaps- it makes ME laugh as much as it makes other people laugh.  I will continue to share my experiences here.  I am not now and will never again be ashamed of my hearing loss.  But darnit, this is food for thought.

6 thoughts on “Holy crap. Did you just say I’m normal?!?

  1. omg what do people you meet think about deaf people? that you drool in the corner and eat crayons? well i know YOU do, but…

    and honestly, you know how we bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing world? by making all of us talkies stfu ;)

  2. I am not deaf, but it seems to me that Ali’s statement is somewhat insulting. I think about the important aspects of my identity, and I think the one I feel most strongly about is that I am a teacher, and I often tell people this. If someone said to me that by telling people I’m a teacher I’m setting myself apart, and that they instead view me as normal, I would be very insulted, not just for myself but for my profession. Why is being a teacher not “normal”? Why is being Deaf not “normal”? What is the shame in taking pride in one’s identity?

    • Jeff- You bring up an excellent point. I am 100% certain that Ali did not mean this as an insult, but rather, brought it up to start a discussion. Being deaf/HOH IS a part of my identity, but I think I’m wondering if I’ve let it become a negative part of it.

      I am well aware of the Deaf community’s stance that they are “not disabled” and that being Deaf is a cultural thing and makes you part of that community. For many Deaf people, being deaf is like being Italian or being African-American in that you’re part of a culture- that’s not the case for me at all. Being deaf/HOH is a roadblock in some ways that I cannot fix, although I’ve found ways around many of them. But I’m hearing enough to know what I’m missing. (I capitalized “Deaf” because there are two types of deaf people- “Big D” and “little d.” Big D are people who generally do not wish to be part of the hearing world, shun cochlear implants, reject the label “disabled,” and embrace sign language- preferring to use that as their primary means of communication. Little d are people like myself. I couldn’t be “Big D” even if I wanted to- I hear too much!)

      I fear I’m rambling. I can clearly see the analogy you are trying to make here, but if we look at this from a sociological perspective, normalcy is defined as a lack of deviation from the average. Normalcy is relative. If I lived in a deaf community, surrounded by people just like me, my circumstances would probably be considered normal, average, the usual. However, that is not the case. The people I tell, the people I interact with, surround myself with, work with, maintain friendships and relationships are not deaf or hard of hearing. I think that’s more what was meant. I’m an anomaly with the company I keep, but she doesn’t see me that way. I think I see MYSELF that way. As not normal.

      I really appreciate your comment- it’s given me more to think about. I’ll certainly concede your point that there is no shame in taking pride in one’s identity! Thank you!

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