A Blast From the Past

Sometimes, we have memories that are so repressed that we can go for years without any recollection of them. And then, suddenly, out of the blue something happens that shakes one of them out of the dark recesses of your memory bank.

This is what happened to me while reading David Jonsson’s You Are Deaf, Congratulations.

Jonsson pulls no punches and has no qualms about being called an angry Deaf man. He has plenty to be angry about and nothing to apologize for. This is his journey, and it reminds me of my own Deaf Again journey. No two journeys are the same, though, and Jonsson’s took much longer than mine.  

If it took me forty years to discover my Deaf identity, I would be pissed off too. Jonsson’s book is raw and it’s real. Some people will be offended, but he said what he had to say.

It didn’t take long for Jonsson to trigger a flashback to a mind-jarring experience that happened a long, long time ago. I didn’t even make it past page two. Jonnson mentioned linguistic colonialism and gave the following example:

They say, “Why aren’t you wearing your hearing aids?!” As if it were all MY responsibility for you to be understood by me.

Boom. That knocked me all the way back to 1975.

This story should have been in Deaf Again or Madness in the Mainstream. It isn’t. Until now, I simply had no recollection of it.

In 1975, I lived in a small apartment with my parents in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. There was no captioned TV, no videophones, no relay services, no text messaging… nothing. I vaguely remember some Deaf families getting that big, noisy, mailbox-sized teletypewriter (TTY), but can’t recall when my family got one. Often, when we had visitors, they would drop by unannounced. They just drove over hoping that someone was home, and that they didn’t drive all those miles for nothing.

One of these unannounced visitors was Joe, a childhood buddy of my dad’s. I was nine years old at the time Joe stopped by, and it was the first time I’d ever seen him. He bear-hugged my dad and the two of them talked about the good old days over a few beers.

It wasn’t long before Joe noticed that I was not quite deaf and not quite hearing. He was right. Back then, I was still hard of hearing. Doctors described it as a progressive sensorineural hearing loss. I took my time with the progressive part. It would take a few more years before my audiogram declared I was true-biz deaf, and it would take even longer before I became culturally Deaf.

While my dad confirmed Joe’s observation, he remarked that I had to wear two hearing aids at school and that I didn’t like it.

Didn’t like it? I hated it.

I hated wearing two hearing aids because my left ear and my right ear had totally different perceptions of sound. My left ear was more sensitive to sound—I could hear more things with it—while my right ear, although technically deafer, could understand more sounds. Back in those days, I could actually talk to a small number of people (hearing relatives and a few friends) on the phone, so long as I held the phone up to my right ear. If I switched the phone to my left ear, their voices would become louder, but I could not understand a word they said.

For me, my comfort zone was to wear a hearing aid in my right ear while leaving my left ear alone. A hearing aid in my left ear was disorienting and gave me a headache. At school, I would turn the left hearing aid off and leave it that way—until the teacher did a hearing aid check and made me turn it back on. As soon as I got home, both hearing aids came off. I only used a hearing aid on my right ear when speaking on the phone, and eventually I stopped doing that after my parents got me a phone with a built-in amplifier.

After my dad explained all of this, Joe got up and walked towards me.

“Hey, Mark. Do you wear two hearing aids?” he asked.   

“Yes.”

“Do you like wearing two hearing aids?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It gives me a headache.”

“You prefer one hearing aid?”

“Yes. Just for my right ear.”

“Then why wear two?”

“Because my teacher said I have to.”

Joe knelt down so that he was at eye level with me. And then, softly but firmly, he said…

“You tell your teacher… that I said she’s full of shit.”

“JOE!!!” my mom interrupted. She saw the whole conversation and was shocked to see a grown man cussing to a nine year old.

I was shocked, too. For an entirely different reason.

For the first time in my life, I had a Deaf guy telling me that hearing people can be wrong. That, not the cussing, is what jarred me. It shook the foundation of the follow-everything-the-hearing-folks-tell-me-to-do world that I lived in.

“Hold on a second,” Joe assured my mom. “I’m almost finished.” He turned back to me and picked up where he left off.

“If you’re not comfortable with two hearing aids, don’t wear two hearing aids. If you want just one, wear one. If you want none, wear none. If you want three, what the hell, wear three.”

Never mind that it’s anatomically impossible to wear three hearing aids. This guy had my attention.

“Don’t let your teacher decide for you,” Joe continued. “You’re Deaf. They call you hard of hearing, but trust me, you’re Deaf. Only you can decide how Deaf you are. Don’t let someone else tell you how to be Deaf. Only you can be Deaf the best way you can be Deaf.”

Joe shook my hand and I stood there in awe. This guy rocked. Who cares if my mom was mortified. Everything this guy said rang true.

At that point in my life, all of the decisions that were made for me were made by people who not only declared they knew what was best, but while doing so had essentially overruled my Deaf parents. The message that I had internalized was listen to all of the doctors, teachers, and audiologists. They are superior to your Deaf family and the Deaf community. Do what they say, no questions asked.

And here we had a Deaf guy telling me I didn’t have to listen to all of these people who made me uncomfortable. For the first time, I felt validated. Joe and I had the same feelings about the world around us. It was genuine. For the others, the people for whom I wore two hearing aids, it was a fake and stressful existence.

I smiled when Joe bid farewell after his visit. And then I never saw him again.

The following week, I was back in my classroom, wearing one hearing aid. It was a small victory. Unfortunately, since I was the only deaf student in the whole school, the lack of support and the isolation of the mainstream caused me to go back to my old ways. I returned to the follow-everything-the-hearing-folks-tell-me-to-do world that inwardly made my stomach churn. I rarely vented my frustration about it. And, even more sadly, Joe and his powerful words faded away.

It would take another thirteen years—when the Deaf President Now protest went on at Gallaudet University in 1988—before I realized once again that Deaf people can, and should, speak up.

Deaf role models are priceless. Even the ones who cuss at nine year olds.