Just a warning. This post will more than likely be long and rambly, and perhaps not entirely positive...just a lot of my thoughts. I hope you'll bear with me, although if you get tired of me rambling, the little red X in the corner will make it all go away ;)
The weekend I spent in OKC made me rethink a lot of things. It was the first time I had ever spent a lot of time with other deaf people. I had been to CI Support Group meetings, but deep down, honestly felt like even though we were all hard of hearing, I wasn't one of them. I could hear something. I had a hearing problem, but I wasn't deaf.
I don't know what the stigma is about being deaf. There's no stigma with being nearsighted or farsighted, ya know? It's an accepted thing. I do know that the few people I know that are hearing impaired or slowly losing their hearing due to old age or environmental causes tend to fight it tooth and nail, often refusing to wear hearing aids or get any help until they're just plain desperate. Seems that folks would rather struggle than admit there's a problem. While I, myself, never had a real problem admitting to strangers that I couldn't hear well, it was always a little embarrassing, kind of like that made me less of a person. I have refused to use any but the most basic assistive devices to help me in my day-to-day life. I got a captioned phone, and refused to learn to use it. Sign language? Not for me. Shake-awake alarm clocks? Nah...I bought me a Moonbeam Clock. It's pretty, and it does the job by blinking a light to wake me up. It's a real clock like NORMAL people use. Do I sound prejudiced? Well, maybe I was. All I know is that I spent my whole life trying to be really, really normal. I didn't want to be deaf and different. I wanted people to see me and not my disability. All the people that went to conventions and used TTYs and loop systems and cochlear implants and sign language...they weren't really normal, like I wanted to be. They were different.
I told Laurie this weekend that being deaf sometimes makes me feel just stupid. When I say something and people don't understand me, I feel stupid. When someone says something to me, and I don't understand them, I feel really stupid. Never mind that it's a physical problem that prevents me from understanding them. When I try to order in the drive-around and finally have to drive up to the window to order, oy. When I have to ask someone to make a phone call for me, it's not "deaf" that I think, but "dummy". Every now and then I get the sense that people are a tiny bit resentful for having to accommodate me (although, I should point out, many people are VERY kind in this regard, and I SO appreciate that!), so I try not to bother anyone. Occasionally I'll just bluff my way through a conversation, rather than put people out by asking them to repeat themselves. If you smile and nod your head and try to look interested sometimes you can fool people into thinking you know what they're talking about. But inside, you feel...stupid. Never mind that when I took IQ tests back in high school I scored a 144, which puts me more towards the "not-stupid" category. So how to avoid looking stupid? The best way is to just stay away from people.
But for me, that's a huge conflict....I LOVE people. My mom has a picture of me when I was about four years old, sitting on a bench at the zoo, talking to a lady that was a total stranger to me. I can talk to anybody. I LOVE people! I think that it would be an awesome job to be a greeter at Wal-Mart....to stand at the door and talk to people when they come in. However, the stress of having to struggle through conversations, especially in the past year, make things like that really impractical. As a result of a combination of being deaf and other, personal factors, I have slowly, over the years, boxed myself into a tiny box, surrounded only by family and a few close friends. I don't let people into my box much. This blog is as much "out there" as I get...it's written, you know, so there's no misunderstanding, no hurt feelings, no "stupid".
Much is written about deaf people and depression. The isolation that deaf people often surround themselves with can be a very painful one. I know, I know, it's a choice. We don't have to live that way. But sometimes it seems like the easiest way. It's really not, though...it's lonely. I know that I shouldn't be lonely with a husband and five children, but I am...often. I don't step outside of my box and cultivate relationships, because they're hard to maintain. Even when people are friendly, the little voice that whispers "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"sometimes gets really hard to shut up. It's hard to accept that people really like you for who you are and aren't, say, humoring you, being kind to the deaf girl, you know, doing their good deed for the day.
This weekend's trip to OKC was an eye-opener for me. I think that part of it was because I was with a group of people that it was safe to be honest with, and I was ready to be honest about it: "Hello. My name is Jennifer and I'm deaf. I'm one of you. I belong here." And in return, I felt accepted into the group; one of them, taken into the fold, a member of the family. We all shared our stories and trials. We talked about battery life and lip reading and signing and telephones. One of the gauges of how well someone can hear is if they can talk on the phone. I can't, but I met a bunch of folks that could...yay! What an accomplishment! It was just the common thing to be talking to someone and them say, "Ooops! Battery died...hang on...". Common to tap someone on the shoulder before starting a conversation, and being considerately tapped in return if someone had something to say to you. Complete understanding when you said, "I didn't catch that, what did you say?" Joking about not being able to "hear" in the dark. At the banquet Saturday night there was a man next to me that seemed to be completely deaf. If he needed something, he would tap me and mouth whatever he needed, and I would ask the servers for whatever he needed. He didn't mind asking me to help him, and I loved doing it. I understood his frustration at not being able to do it himself. We were all looking out for each other. I have never felt more like I belonged somewhere in all my life. I am not making this up. I felt completely comfortable to just relax and be me. It was incredible. And, you know what? I don't think I met one single stupid person all weekend. Everyone seemed pretty intelligent to me, some of them downright brainy, many of them funny. The only time I thought "stupid" all weekend was when I was tiptoeing around in the bedroom at night to keep from waking Laurie up (when she didn't hear a thing)! Why do I torture myself with this "stupid" business? We're not! We just can't hear! There's a big difference!! Why has it taken me so long to wrap my brain around this? (don't all say "because you're stupid!" at once, please! ;) )
Up until now, the HLAA (Hearing Loss Association of America) wasn't much of a big deal to me. I paid my yearly dues and got a magazine and the occasional e-mail. But meetings? Assistive devices? Uh, no. That was for the real deaf people. I had a sheet of paper with information about all the local chapters and their meeting times and places, but I threw it in the trash. Bah. Well, since I've been home I have looked at that old HLAA website up one side and down the other, memorized the times and the places of all the meetings in our area, and even discovered that-Yay!-Opry Mills Theater in Nashville shows OPENED CAPTIONED MOVIES. I am willing to drive an hour to watch a movie! I've seen one, and now I'm spoiled! Maybe Harry Potter will be open captioned!! Wouldn't that be AWESOME?
What it comes down to is this: I have seen what the deaf community is like, and I am ready to turn loose of whatever stupid prejudices I've had and be one of them. Yes, I still want to be a part of the "normal" world. Most of my world involves many great hearing people. But I am ready to spend some time getting to know other deaf and hard of hearing people. We need each other. We can help each other. Assistive listening devices? Companies put thousands and thousands of dollars and countless hours into helping make our world easier! Why am I fighting this? Sign? It's a beautiful language, and I'm kicking myself for not already knowing it...I met so many awesome people this weekend that sign, and I wished that I knew it so that I could participate better in the conversations.
And to the rest of the world: I need you, too. This social butterfly wants nothing more than to fill her life with wonderful people and opportunities, and if you are reading this, that means you too. I'm definitely not cutting off the hearing folks...after all, right now, that's the majority of my world :) I think that my point is, it's time for me to get real, to throw away my prejudices and ignore the stigmas and be proud that I am who I am, regardless of whether or not I can hear. It's just hearing, after all. There's so much more to me than my ears :)
Love you all!! (and, don't worry, I won't do this often ;) )