I walked into the large auditorium and saw a group of six young college girls huddled in a semi-circle, giggling and looking over at me while whispering and pointing my way. My heart fluttered. I wondered what to do or say. They caught me spotting them and quickly turned away. As I walked past them with red face and trembling hands, I flashed my friendliest smile.
Feeling a bit off balance I took a seat in the front row and told my ASL interpreter what had happened. Hands flying we signed; this was so new to me.
"You do what, if you deaf?" I signed in my clumsy sign language.
Her reply with her face saying "humm well" was, "Me deaf, me walk over to them, put out my hand, [she is gesturing animatedly] smile [she smiles with emphasis and runs her hands along her mouth over exaggerating it] and say my name is Barb. I used to hear just like you." All the time her face was relaxed, with no fear of this plan.
Before our lecture began I managed to sign, "Me? Walk up to them and introduce myself?" I laughed at the image of me, a 35-year-old, late-deafened mom walking up and boldly introducing myself to a group of curious 18-year-olds. It seemed a rather odd suggestion. What would we have in common? How would I communicate with them? What's the purpose? Why me?
As most universities do, our state school lagged behind in accommodating Deaf, HOH (hard of hearing) and LDA (late deafened adult) students. I had muddled through a few semesters as a severely hearing-impaired student. The school made the fewest accommodations they could get away with. This semester, however, I was functionally deaf. I thought I was ready. I had prepared, listened, read, and researched, yet the newness of the situation had jet propelled me into unfamiliar territory. I felt like a stranger in my own body.
The previous fall I had used notetakers. I would sit passively, missing most of what was said in my classes, although the instructors were usually wonderful about my lip-reading them and tried to stay close. The next spring the college gave me a new assistive-listening device, which I used diligently. Some teachers were even kind enough to walk up whenever students were speaking, so I could try to make out a class discussion. Not that it worked, but I appreciated their attempts nonetheless. I was a closet hard-of-hearing mom attending school. If I didn't tell anyone, wore my hair long and smiled a lot, no one noticed my hearing loss. I felt oddly suspended between two worlds and found making friends with classmates was difficult.
How can you make ask someone for notes or information if you miss a class and not reveal your secret trouble communicating? How do you tell them and not become the recipient of their pity or the converse, become the receiver of fault finding from people?
That last semester using an assistive-listening device, I would come home frustrated with all I missed. My dear, patient, online deaf friends coached me for hours on how to request my needs, why I was entitled to them, and what I was entitled too. With never-ending patience, they encouraged me to take a stand. Finally, feeling a bit courageous one day (it must have been one of those rare "Good Hair Days"), I wrote a strong letter, loudly proclaiming my rights to gather the same information as my classmates. I sent this to the school disability office and to the head of our school. My desires were simple. To have equal access, not the least access, I requested Computerized Assisted Real-Time (CART). The next year, I was introduced to Debra Kramm, a new disability counselor who was sign fluent and pro-deaf advocacy with equal access and rights for all. I will always secretly, silently take credit for her coming to UCF. Although I am sure my complaints had little to do with it, since it makes me feel important, I humor myself.
With Debra Kramm, not only did I get CART and Terps alternately so I could practice my signing and learn to maneuver in a new world, but I also got gentle encouragement, a friendship and an education in self-respect. So, after this encounter in my huge math auditorium, I went and told Deb about it. She smiled and said, "Go walk up to them. There is nothing wrong with you. They just don't understand. Maybe you can help them."
In her usual sweet and gentle yet firm believable way, she smiled and nudged carefully. I wanted her to tell me it was okay to keep hiding, to walk around oblivious to things like this. Yet, Deb gently told me in so many different ways, hiding is not best for the world or for me. She seemed fully prepared to not only handle my accommodation needs, but also my "coming out of the closet" needs. As if by telepathy, she was able to anticipate my next fear, encounter and struggle, often before I did.
So much for sympathy from Deb! In a last ditch effort for reprieve, I asked my online deaf friends what to do and the answer was a resounding, "Walk up to them and shake their hand." Humpft! Easy for them to say!
The next week outside of the math class, the young girls were huddled together sitting on the floor with books open and papers spread all over obviously discussing the upcoming test. I sat down near them smiling as I got out my books to study too. When I was stuck, I looked around feeling out of place yet again. In a rare moment of bravery, I tapped one of the girls on the shoulder gently as I pointed to my books with multiple eraser marks and casually said, "You know, I am really stuck on number 15. Can you guys help me out? I just know I am gonna flunk this class; and it would look very silly to have someone that could be your mother flunk out in front of you."
For a moment, time seemed suspended. They sat looking at me; I sat looking at them. My face was flushed, I could feel my heart pounding in my head, and I realized I was holding my breath. I could feel the discomfort among the group as they fidgeted and eyeballed each other from the corner of their eyes.
"What a mistake" I thought, as I pushed my hair behind my ears trying to look relaxed while secretly wishing the floor would swallow me whole.
I don't know if they were surprised to hear me speak or surprised to have me ask them for help, but in a nervous tension, I saw all their mouths moving at once and their fingers pointing to the book. I heard nothing but loud uncomfortable background mumbled noise in the large hallway.
Feeling victorious, I smiled as I laughed and stopped them with waving my hands in the air. "Wait, I can only follow one person at a time. Can you do me a favor and have one person talk and look at me? If someone has a new idea that might help, please touch my shoulder or wave around in the air acting like a two-year-old, like this [me waving, acting like a complete idiot] so I know you are speaking and can look directly at you."
My mimicking a two-year-old waving around frantically broke the tension and everyone laughed in relief. I formed a new friendship that day. These girls always offered to answer questions for me on test study days and were quick and curious about my hearing loss. To the best of my ability, I answered their questions about being deaf. They even learned some sign language. It turns out two of these girls were future audiologists in training. While I have not kept in touch with this group of young girls, I am sure their mini-education in dealing with a deaf person has benefited them. I know that first brave encounter has benefited me. Deb was right; I had no reason to hide. While my closet felt safe and more comfortable, I had become imprisoned by my fears. Those huge monsters in my closet had held me there. I was missing out on so much. Being assertive is getting easier and easier. Well, usually.
BACK to table of contents