As you might imagine, being deaf in a hearing world presents a unique set of challenges. Those who don’t deal with deafness directly or in their own family are often completely in the dark about those challenges.
Just as with those with other disabilities, deaf people have to cope with feelings of “otherness,” and they have to make choices about the best ways to adapt to tasks that they aren’t equipped to deal with.
What follows are just a few of the facets and situations that deaf people have to learn about and deal with as they go through life in a hearing world.
Using Deafness as an Identity
This sign language blogger sums it up well:
“As any deaf person will proudly tell you, deafness is an identity, not an impairment. They do not consider deafness a problem that needs to be ‘fixed.’ Deaf culture is active, full of positive role models; and ASL [American Sign Language] is a rich, constantly evolving language.”
It can take some work and reflection to develop a healthy sense of your own identity, both when it comes to your deafness and apart from it, depending on how you’ve grown up and the nature of your disability. (Related post: Creating an Identity Beyond Disability)
However, even while others assume deafness to be a handicap, most deaf people grow to see it as part of who they are, something that makes them unique, and perhaps as a chance to be a part of a thriving collective.
Joining a Community
There are all kinds of people on the spectrum of deafness, and we come from a multitude of cultures and families with different values and parenting styles.
Some parents opt to mainstream their deaf kids as much as possible, teaching them to read lips and hide or ignore their deafness as much as they can. That was this woman’s experience.
Other parents are happy to immerse their child — and the rest of their family — into the deaf culture: learning sign language, taking advantage of every resource available, and encouraging kids to be open with their deafness.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach — and a blend of the two can work as well. It’s helpful to be able to adapt to the hearing world as much as possible, and connecting with others who have the same issues and using the tools developed just for deaf people can be empowering. Deaf people can make these choices to both connect and integrate for themselves as they grow.
Getting Comfortable with Attention
This New York Times columnist beautifully describes the joy of communicating in sign language.
She also describes, however, how self-conscious it can make people who are used to communicating without the extra visuals and gestures that sign language requires.
Because sign language is not seen all that much, it tends to draw attention. That can make people who aren’t used to it uncomfortable.
As mentioned earlier, it can take time and a conscious choice to be proud of your identity as a deaf person and a sign-language user. With that, your comfort with other people’s reactions will grow.
Having to Work at It
Being fully integrated into a hearing world when you’re deaf can be especially challenging in the workplace and in forming relationships, as this young man’s column explains.
Certain aspects that hearing people take for granted — like watercooler conversations or lunchtime conversations with colleagues — are often missed. Deaf people may find themselves having to work harder and find ways around certain obstacles in this regard. They may also find themselves feeling isolated.
As the columnist writes, one way to make up for things you believe you’re missing is to start reaching out and making personal connections — even directly asking your hearing colleagues and friends what they’re talking about if you can’t understand it. Being honest about your obstacles and pointing your working colleagues to tools that can make life easier for you can help you and them in the long run.
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