Normally on this blog I write about… well, writing. Sometimes, in writing about writing I also write about my dog, my husband, or my undying love of zombies and snacks (in no particular order). I have, for the most part, stuck to this theme since the genesis of my author page, and I’m not the kind of person to deviate.
Still, there’s more to me than just being a writer, a dog mom, a wife, and a passionate foodie. On top of all of those things, I’m also a deaf woman. Not hard of hearing, but profoundly and completely deaf.
And not just deaf, but proud to be so.
I am proud that, in spite of losing my hearing—in spite of the negative connotations and misconceptions that accompany being a deaf person in a hearing community—I have persevered and become the completely independent adult that I am today (there are some people who would replace “perseverance” with “headstrong” and “stubborn”, but I suppose it’s all the same in the end).
I wasn’t always proud to be deaf. Growing up, I really struggled to come into myself and own my disability. I am an incredibly loud, obnoxiously extroverted person but I doubt you’ll find a classmate from elementary school through college that will remember me as such. I guarantee you they’ll tell you I was introverted and quiet in class—I whispered when called upon and barely raised my hand to participate, even when I knew the answers.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have a lot to say. It was that I was afraid to say it. I was afraid of “sounding deaf” and, even more so, I was terrified that “sounding deaf” would equate to people thinking I was stupid, slow, or somehow lacking in intelligence.
The sad part is, I didn’t come to these conclusions on my own.
These conclusions were spoon-fed to me by well-meaning adults who spoke to me as if not being able to hear meant that I also couldn’t comprehend basic directions. Just ask my parents about the slew of babysitters I sent screaming for the hills because I noticed them speaking to my baby brother like he was smarter and more capable than me. “They think I’m stupid,” I’d tell my parents. “They talk to me like I’m dumb and I’m not.”
These conclusions were forced upon me by kids at school asking me if I was stupid, teasing me for wearing hearing aids and mocking me for having an “accent”.
“I was suddenly ashamed of my voice—ashamed of how I must sound. Everything I said sounded wrong. Every pronunciation wasn’t quite right. I felt like I had sand in my mouth.”
I’m a pretty smart person. I may have totally bombed the math section of the SATs, and I’ve never been able to put IKEA furniture together successfully, but I’ve got a lot of opinions. Good opinions. I should never have had to live in a world where I was afraid to say them aloud.
That brings me to the reason why I’m writing this.
This weekend I saw an article in The Huffington Post that made me want to chuck my phone across the room. I’m sure no one is surprised to hear that the article was about none other than the latest hateful commentary from Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump.
Let me preface by saying that I’m not one for touting my political opinions. In general, I try to keep politics and religion out of conversation, both offline and on. In fact, I’m hoping to keep politics as far from this post as possible. I don’t care if you’re voting Republican or Democrat, or even if you’re a closet anarchist prepping for a November 8th doomsday.
I do care about the way Donald Trump has used his voice to further perpetuate the negative stigmas associated with the deaf and hard of hearing population. (If you haven’t already read the article, you can do so here.)
Whether running for the presidency or not, Donald Trump’s influence in this country has always been a tangible entity. He’s not some newcomer who appeared out of the woodwork. He’s been around for a long time. He’s been influencing millions of viewers with his words and his actions for a long time. Whether or not his words about deaf actress Marlee Matlin went viral this week or five years ago doesn’t matter. What matters is that his proliferation of incredibly damaging stigmas about the deaf and hard of hearing community was heard by viewers, both then and now.
Anna Almendrala, the author of The Huffington Post article, says what I’m trying to say beautifully: “Trump’s mockery of Matlin cuts to the core of a common stigma against deaf people: Because their voice can sound tonally different from the voices of hearing people, they are perceived as unintelligent. This misperception keeps some people with deafness from speaking out loud altogether, as it is difficult for them to regulate the sounds they make. This, in turn, can be misinterpreted by hearing people as an intellectual disability”.
Point in fact: I was recently at a Mary Kay party where the makeup consultant became convinced I had an accent.
“Where are you from?” she asked me brightly, patting my face with powder.
“Massachusetts,” I replied, already feeling my voice growing papery and quiet, already knowing what was coming. I’d been here before, too many times to count. I was in a roomful of women I didn’t know—a roomful of women who still viewed me as an intellectual equal because they didn’t know I was deaf. The paranoia within me desperately wanted it to remain a secret for just a little bit longer. I’ve found, in my experience, that people are less likely to treat me differently if my deafness comes as a surprise reveal later on, after they’ve gotten a chance to know my mind and my personality a little bit more.
The Mary Kay consultant wasn’t satisfied by my answer. “But your accent is so interesting,” she chirped. “Where were you from before that?”
My confidence choked off in my throat. It was all I could do to whisper, “Connecticut.”
“But before that?”
“Just Connecticut,” I croaked again. I was suddenly ashamed of my voice—ashamed of how I must sound. Everything I said sounded wrong. Every pronunciation wasn’t quite right. I felt like I had sand in my mouth.
I shouldn’t have been ashamed. No one around us even noticed what was going on. Even so, I didn’t say another word the rest of the night. I became an introverted shell of my usual, confident self. I counted the minutes until I’d get to go home and cry. A lifetime of stigmatization has done that to me. A lifetime of negative association has enabled moments like that to rip from me the confidence that I worked so hard to build within myself from 1994 until now.
Still, this isn’t meant to be viewed as a “pity piece”. I maintain what I said earlier: I am proud to be deaf. There may be days that are harder than others, but they are few and far between. These days, I am open and talkative about that particular characteristic of myself (I say “characteristic” because “disability” doesn’t define me or my hearing anymore). To me, my deafness has become part of who I am, rather than something that makes me feel sad or ashamed.
I AM deaf. I am also a successful adult, a social worker, a budding author, a loving wife, a loyal friend, a daughter a sister and a soon-to-be mother.
Donald Trump won’t silence me. His hateful commentary won’t keep me from speaking up, and speaking loud. I DO have an accent. I DO sound deaf, especially when I’m distracted, tired, or feeling particularly lazy. But I’m smart and well-read and capable. I have two degrees and a published novel. I’m crushing it out there, not just as a deaf woman, but as a human.
Take that, Donald.
People like Donald Trump are the perpetrators of the negative stereotypes and the false misconceptions that society has about those who are deaf and hard of hearing. He’s not the only person that holds to the opinion that deaf people sound “retarded*”, but he is arguably one of the most influential. The entire world is listening to him, and a good deal of the country is standing behind him wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.
As someone who has spent a lifetime working hard to shed the stereotypes that accompany her disability, that scares me. It scares me a lot. But it doesn’t scare me quite enough to keep me quiet.
(*I won’t even take the time here to go into the gross misuse of the word “retard”, although the social worker in me is still raging mad. The very fact that he thinks its an acceptable insult is another problem completely)