Saturday, May 15, 2010

deaf with a lower case d

One hot summer night in Austin, Texas, my best friend, Andrea, and a few of her friends were bar hopping down 6th street.  We decided to cut through one open bar to get where we were going, but something strange happened.  We entered the patio of a corner bar and were struck with dead silence.  We proceeded into the open air bar and couldn't hear anything but the band playing.  People were lined up for drinks at the bar at least 4 deep, they were dancing to the beat before the band, congregating in groups.  What the hell?  Total silence.  I looked up, saw a banner hanging from the was a convention for ASL speakers...if you can call them speakers. It was like time slowed down as we made our way through the crowd.  No one was speaking but everyone was conversing. Nothing was out of the ordinary but everything was different.

I'm deaf...medically, legally, functionally, and whatever else you want to call it.  I'm deaf and I have been for over two decades.  But I'm deaf with a lower case d and that's different than being Deaf.

In the good old U S of A we have something known as Deaf culture.  I'm not a part of that.  To be considered a member of that culture, one's primary means of communication is American Sign Language (ASL).  The nature of my hearing loss allows me to function in society with the help of hearing aids and because of those hearing aids, I haven't had to rely on ASL.  I only know one person, my cousin Kelly, who is fluent in ASL (aside from a few deaf students) so at this point I haven't bothered to learn much of it and instead I've struggled to hold onto whatever residual hearing I have.

My hearing is, however, progressive, which means that it gets worse over time.  When I first learned this, I didn't really have a clue what it meant and I ignored it.  But as time passed, and the numbers changed, the power of the aids increased, I realized that my hearing days are numbered.

I began learning ASL in 2003.  My first class was through the Deaf Action Center in Dallas, Texas.  I spent only a brief six weeks there learning the basic vocabulary and grammatical structures of a foreign language sitting next to my husband (who learned it much faster than me).  I walked away with a certificate but really knowing very little and I upgraded my hearing instruments and went on my way.

When my daughter was born, my speech discrepancy levels dropped considerably and Blake and I chose to teach our baby signs.  She was an early language developer, speaking around 100 words by her first birthday, complete sentences by 15 months, but she learned dozens of signs and at almost 3 years old now, still uses several of them.

I recently decided that learning ALS is not an option for me but a must.  At some point in my life, the spoken word will be obsolete and I will have to find another way to communicate.  And I'm terrified!  Can I learn this language?  No doubt! Can I learn it quickly?  No doubt!  Will the people I love learn it?  I doubt it.  How will I communicate with them?  How will I grocery shop, order a pizza, buy a car?  How will I have a teacher conference with my daugther's teachers?  How will I explain to the girl at the mall who wants to help me that I can't understand her?  Do I wear a t-shirt that says "I'm Deaf!" What happens when I get pulled over for speeding and the cop can't communicate with me? How will I hold a job and provide for my family? How do I live a normal life?  I already rely on speech reading so much...I'm terrified of the future!

I recently passed my first test to become certified to teach the deaf and hard of hearing in Texas.  Before I can receive my certification, I have to become fluent in ASL.  So that's what I'm doing.  I've picked up my studies again and hope to take the test next summer.  Once I pass that test, I will be able to teach the deaf and you don't have to hear to teach the Deaf!  By learning ASL, I will also open the doors to another culture and become a part of it myself.

Not only will I be deaf, I'll be Deaf.  And maybe the next time I happen onto that bar in Austin I'll be invited as a guest rather than a crasher wondering what the eerie silence is all about.