A Word

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.

Life’s Good.

Ooookay. HI EVERYONE! I’m back, I am sorry for the unexpected hiatus. Life has been crazy with a capital K lately. Spring semester is picking up steam and all aspects of my life that I once considered so normal and second nature before winter break are slowwwly becoming familiar again. It’s amazing what some apple cider, tons of sugary desserts, and presents can do to your memory of how to be a independent student. Really amazing.

Anyways. Where do I even start? SO many things have gone down in the past two weeks.

I guess I’ll start by addressing academics and hearing impairment and what that means for me.

Before every semester starts, I like to give all of my professors a heads up that I’m coming their way this semester. I shoot off a brief but explanatory email about my impairment, what it means to them, what it means to me, and I reiterate that I am a highly, if not fully, functioning student that is looking forward to the semester. The usual. What I think is most important about these introductory emails is that they know that I take full and complete responsibility for my hearing. I ask for repeated clarification if I missed something, I go to office hours. I sit in the front. The whole enchilada. What I think is also important is that they see my enthusiasm for learning. They see that I am an ambitious student that isn’t going to hide behind the hearing loss if things do not go well.

If I have learned anything in my 15 years of education, it is that teachers WANT TO HELP. Even when it appears that they don’t, more often than not, that is derived from a general misunderstanding about what hearing impairment is and the extent to which hearing impairments affect students like me. I have learned to be upfront, open, and clear about my disability. When I remove the mystery from my disability, it is like a lightbulb goes off in the professor/teacher’s head. Like I said in an earlier blog post, everyone has something. When I share with my teachers my something, they think of their own something and they understand how these somethings can be an obstacle. They understand, period. It was just about the coolest thing ever when I emailed a professor last semester, and he came back with a response almost immediately about how he had a speech impediment and how he was able to succeed, and how he has faith in my ability to succeed. Little things like that really make or break the difference in my academic experience.

Another thing I would recommend to all hearing impaired people out there is to REGISTER with your school’s disability services and programs office. There are various names at different schools across the country but they all variate on the terms disability, service, office, programs. Do a google search. Just do it. Even if you don’t register with them, you know exactly where you can find an entire office full of people on campus whose jobs consist of supporting you throughout your time at school.

With these two pieces of advice aside, let’s talk fun.

I am involved in two groups on campus that give me an incredible sense of belonging. The first of those groups is the Wellness Advocate group. We are student volunteers hand selected by the professional staff at the USC Office for Wellness and Health Promotion (which is run out of our student health center). Because we operate on a calendar year, a whole new class of Wellness Advocates have just been added to our tight knit family. We had two days of training this Friday and Saturday. Though these training sessions were long, they were filled with support, love, enthusiasm, excitement, of course, new friendships. My love for my fellow Wellness Advocates, old and new, simply cannot be put into words. I feel like I have known these people forever. As you can probably see, I am still riding on that high from training. What were we training for, you may ask? As WAs (as we call ourselves), we provide 3 workshops of Mindful Meditation, Mindful Movement, and Mindful Sex (a peer-led consent workshop — sorry, it’s not quite what it sounds like). Each workshop is unique and different, and they take a while to master. Thus, our training consisted of everyone really stepping up to the plate and delivering their true, open selves in the name of wellbeing and health promotion here at USC. I am continually amazed at the depth of ideas, backgrounds, and knowledge that my fellow WAs present and I am SO honored to be a part of the program.

The second group that I am involved in ties in a little more closely with this blog, and I believe I mentioned this group earlier. It is actually a registered nonprofit group here in California, but it all started with the student-run club component that I am involved in. It is called Ending All Roads to Silence (acronym: EARS. How cute? So cute). This Saturday night we are putting on our annual benefit concert and guess who was in charge of organizing the whole shebang? Yours truly. Not only did I need to reserve the location the minute school started in AUGUST for January, but I also needed to set up the artists that wanted to perform, procure some goodies for our raffle, and coordinate for a special limited edition milkshake to be sold during the week of the concert on behalf of our club. I should probably mention, I had NEVER done anything like this before!

In fact, I was never really involved in extracurriculars to the extent that I am now. I think a lot of that has to do with growing up and understanding how to be a good student and a good citizen. But I also think a lot of it has to do with confidence. I know I have said this a million times, so get ready to count a million and one: I feel that this confidence came from my cochlear implant. I am not afraid to make phone calls and make things happen in the way I was so afraid of doing earlier. I was worried that if I shouldered too much responsibility, my disability would cause me to trip up and fall down, with the responsibility tumbling down after me. Nowadays, I feel very different. Mistakes are human nature. If they are made, you fix it. Be as clear about your disability as possible, put on your big girl pants, and GO DO. Suffice to say, my hearing impairment has not caused ANY issues in either EARS or WAs. What’s more, I am looking to get even MORE involved! I feel I have so much to give, and I’ve got a couple of missed years of involvement, so I am simply itching to get my hands even dirtier. That sounded much better in my head and ten times worse in text than it did out loud, but you get my flow.

So that’s all I have for you today. I know, “ALL? That was long.” I know. Sorry. I just love sharing. Life’s good, ya know?

So You Think You Can’t Dance?

Hello Earpluggers!

This past Tuesday, I finally finally finally got to do an activity I haven’t done in two years.

What is it?

Dance.

Don’t get me wrong, I have danced at parties and shimmied around my room just as much, if not more than the next person. But what I have been itching to do is really dance. Dance like triple pirouette calypso roll to the ground bruised knees, sore body type dance. The kind I did in high school.

But wait! You exclaim. Dance? Aren’t you deaf?

Well sure, I reply, but what of it?

From an outsider’s perspective, I can see how this is a little bit oxymoronic. A deaf dancer? A blind painter? A paralyzed athlete? These types of people are not so common, but they DO exist. I can’t speak for the painter or the athlete (is dance a sport, though? Let’s save that can of worms for another day), I can certainly speak for myself, and here’s what I’ve got to say about this.

There are things a person CAN do, and things a person WON’T do. You’ll notice instead of saying “can’t” I said “won’t.” You may see where this is going.

Perhaps we can chalk this attitude up to a series of dance teachers who pushed me during every class and every private lesson to perform feats of dance with my own body I never before thought possible. Perhaps it is my disability, teaching me resilience. Either way, I feel that there is nothing a person cannot do if they really, truly, completely set their mind to it. I once heard the saying “if there’s a will, there’s a way.”

For me, there was a will. Granted, my first love was soccer. Then it was horseback riding. But once I realized that what I truly loved to do was groove to a great beat, I enrolled in dance classes.

But how? You may ask, still confused.

Here’s how. Prior to my implant, I really could not hear much when it came to music. I relied on the heavy downbeats and vibration of the bass in the floor to keep me on cue. I also would double, triple memorize the eight counts, and often times, those counts were the only thing I had to go off of. Accents in the music were all but lost on me.

It was hard, but it was doable. I found a way to pursue my passion without being held back by any disability.

Since my cochlear implant, my ability to hear music has made leaps and strides (pun SO intended), and my love for dance only grew. Now, I can hear accents in the music, lyrics, bass, downbeat, upbeat, sidebeat — well you get the point. If for some reason I don’t hear it, if someone points it out to me, I will pick up on it.

In fact, my biggest problem isn’t so much hearing the music as it is keeping the implant on my head. The force of a piroutte (turn) or a head roll is enough to send my implant flying across the room. Again, I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I used double sided wig tape to secure the implant to my head, I wore an ear mold to anchor it to my ear, and I used a giant hair clip to fasten the magnet to my hair. It is complicated and it is slightly insane, but it works! With this crazy solution making, I was able to dance on my high school’s song team (also known as a pom dance team at other schools). I got to perform at basketball and football games, pep rallies, shows, open houses, and more. I loved every single second of it.

Sure, I had a disability that would seem, at first glance, to prevent me from participating in one of my absolute favorite activities, but the truth is, I knew that there was no way my heart and soul could be kept off a dance floor — and I acted accordingly. I believe that if anyone is compelled to, drawn to, lead to, dragged to any particular activity, no matter how crazy or far fetched it seems to that person, anything is possible. It takes guts, blood, sweat, tears, confidence, humbleness, resilience, perseverance, and more. I didn’t say success is a given, I said it was possible.

And possible, my friends, is where you start.

Curious to see what I look like when I dance? Can you guess which one I am? Check out this link. Then, come back to this page and scroll down for the answer. Also, thanks to my Song friend Sarah McVickar (who also appears in this video with me) for getting me to an empty dance room, and to Travell Johnson for some kick ass choreography.

https://vimeo.com/116429635

(I’m the one in pink).