Happy Thursday folks.
So, it was going to happen eventually. I was bound to have a week where I couldn’t think about anything that happened recently that was specifically related to me and that had to do with hearing impairments (shocking, I know). However, the blog must go on. There is no shortage of topics in the deaf/Deaf/hard of hearing world to discuss, so today I thought I would talk about . . . talking.
Before I begin, let’s just back this up for a second.
There is not simply one type of deafness. To make matters even more complicated, there is no one type of association to hearing impairment a person can have.
What? English please.
There are three types of hard of hearing to deaf people out there. First, there is the term “hard of hearing.” This term is typically used when people have enough hearing to communicate (and often do, through spoken language). Second, there is deaf, with a lowercase “d,” this means that a person is unable communicate adequately with just their hearing. Contrary to the popular belief, being deaf does not mean you cannot hear ANYTHING. It means that you may need assistance with hearing (such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other hearing devices). Finally, Deaf with a capital “D” is a reference to a culture in which people use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate and live according to certain rules and values that they have set for themselves as members of this Deaf community. You can have any level of hearing loss to be a member of the Deaf community.
For me as a member of the deaf community (with a lowercase d) I find the lines between people with hearing disabilities to be quite fascinating. When I was born (wayyy back when in ’95), newborn babies were not screened for hearing loss. Thus, my hearing loss went undetected for 11 months until my family realized that I not only was not talking (although I did make tons of nonsensical baby sounds which threw them off because deaf babies are often quieter) but also I could not balance at all. That is 11 months of not walking and get this — not even crawling. Many people are puzzled at this point in my story. What many forget is that hearing and balance are associated. Since I did not have strong hearing capabilities, I did not have strong walking capabilities. I was whisked to many doctors appointments until one pediatrician’s speech therapist wife picked up on the mystery of the limp baby (me). Once I was officially diagnosed, my parents wasted no time trying to close the developmental gap of 11 months. I had missed out on so many milestones that babies my age were supposed to have reached. I was in occupational therapy for the vast majority of the day to help me gain balancing, crawling, and general motor abilities. It was a whirlwind of playing catch-up.
The question of what to do with my ears was another can of worms entirely. My parents were faced with a choice. Would Shayna be a verbal, speaking baby or would Shayna be a Deaf baby? Going with the motif of wasting no time, my parents began learning sign language and teaching me sign while simultaneously equipping me with hearing aids, not really sure which path to take, but definitely knowing there wasn’t time to waste. One day in my parents’ search for answers, they received a phone call from a leader of a local Deaf community. My parents got their first real exposure to Deaf community values during that call. “Putting hearing aids on your child would be like trying to change the color of her skin,” the leader said, “you should accept her as she is. She is one of us now.”
These words were paralyzing to my stressed out and confused parents. Would giving me the gift of sound be a blatant refusal to accept who I really was? What’s more, the Deaf community felt that I would have the most success within their culture of silence and sign language. They felt that when deaf or hard of hearing individuals try to integrate themselves into the “normal” hearing community, it results in depression and isolation. No one understands you except the Deaf community. Let her be deaf among the Deaf, where she will truly be happy. For my parents, who had no prior exposure to deafness (I am the only deaf person in my family tree) they felt that a life without sound would be terrible. “But,” they wondered, “can we understand what it is like to be our daughter? Will she be happier with silence?”
I cannot fathom the amount of pain and worry my parents went through in the following months. After consultations and research that cut into their own sleep schedules and careers, they reached their conclusion.
I, Shayna Cooperman, would hear.
When I started showing a propensity for sign language, blatantly refusing to use my words and signing instead, my parents immediately halted my sign language education so I would have a chance of learning to communicate verbally as soon as possible. For babies and children, speech and language skills must be picked up early on, and those skills will set the stage for the rest of your life. If I had any shot in the hearing world, I would need to be immersed in sound and know no other alternative to speech, at least until I demonstrated a reasonable grasp on language.
Don’t fret. I know this story is stressful, but if you have ever talked to me in person, you know we won the race against time to get those essential verbal skills. It wasn’t easy — there were hours and hours of speech therapy, hearing tests, hearing aid fittings, and more — but we did it.
I am forever grateful that I know what it is like to hear. I truly believe my parents made the right choice, but for me, as an individual. I do not claim to speak for all deaf/hard of hearing individuals. For Shayna Cooperman, hearing was the right choice. There is no Deaf culture in my community, in my family, or in my life. So while it might seem that being a member of the Deaf community would have been more natural, it would have actually been a stretch for me to find these people and ingratiate myself. I have a respect for the Deaf community and their way of life. They may think that the way of life I lead is extremely hard to grasp and bordering on impossible, but I can’t imagine how they do it either. Kudos, man.
If I have any regrets, it would be that I did not learn sign language. For this, I do not blame my parents. They were right to halt my sign language education so I could catch up to my hearing and talking peers. However, I was given several opportunities throughout my life to reacquaint myself with the language, and each time, there was some excuse or other that prevented me from learning it. My parents were open to me making my own choices once I was mature enough. I could sign if I wanted, I could get a cochlear implant if I wanted. They even supported the idea that I should learn sign language. For some reason, I never did, and that is my loss. Sign language is so beautiful and I understand why the Deaf community is so protective of it, especially as technology races onward. Cochlear implants, stronger hearing aids, and Baha devices among others promise hearing to those who would have never dared to hope to hear sound (yay!), but they are threatening to the Deaf community because when people hear, they don’t need to sign (not so yay). When people don’t need to sign, sign language becomes archaic, and goes the way of Latin, Ancient Greek, and Hebrew — beautiful, nostalgic, and a remnant of a time past. To learn sign language would be wonderful and fulfilling experience. I don’t think I will be speaking solely sign language any time soon, but it would be great to know and propagate. Also, disclaimer, I am definitely a fan of cochlear implants and hearing devices (I owe my life to them) so I don’t want to sound negative about them either. I just wish I could find a way for the two worlds to coexist peacefully.
There was a movie I watched a couple of years ago starring Marlee Matlin (a prominent deaf actress who also authored several books about deaf children that I also found enjoyable) called “Sweet Nothing in My Ear.” It was a Lifetime movie (I know, all the cheesiness and sobbing). I thought it was a wonderful portrayal of the tension between the two worlds: the hearing world and the Deaf world. If this is interesting to you, I would definitely recommend that you check it out. It is some serious food for thought.
I am aware that because I speak spoken words and wear a cochlear implant that I am somewhat of a disappointment to the Deaf community. I do not live my life in accordance with Deaf values or communicate in sign language or go to a Deaf school. I succeed in the hearing world and I have successfully integrated myself to the point where my hearing impairment goes virtually undetected. I wish whole-heartedly that the Deaf would see this as a success, but I understand why it is not, in their eyes. I also know I am not alone. There are many, many other people out there that have also chosen to be a member of the verbal world, and it is the Deaf community that must fend for itself.
I am not trying to advocate either way for spoken language or sign language, I am merely relaying my own story for the purpose of education. Ultimately, a person must do what is best for them. For me, I have no doubt in my mind that the path I am on is the best for me. Nothing gives me greater joy than music, laughter, and language. It really really really has not been easy, though. But it has been worth every minute. For others, this may not be the case and there is no shame in that either. They may have been born into the culture, they may have chosen the culture. Either way, tomato tomahto. You do you. I am accepting of every type of person and I cannot decide for someone else what works for them.
Look, I don’t know if my rambling (have I ever not rambled, though?) is doing any good for you, but I hope you learned something new. Obviously I cannot present an unbiased view because I am not an unbiased participant. I am nonjudgemental for sure, but unbiased I am not. If this topic interests you, don’t just take my word for it. My friend Google knows a lot more about this topic and would be happy to help you out. If not, that’s chill too. I hope you enjoyed the story and I am sorry I lied in the title. This post wasn’t a word. This post was 1876 words.