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.