Deaf Again Autoresponder Course Part Five

Sure, I’d had interpreters at Temple University, but I couldn’t take them with me to late-night discussions in the dorm. My education there was limited only to whatever happened in the classroom. At Gallaudet, the learning experience ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

--From Chapter 9 of Deaf Again

In the PBS documentary Through Deaf Eyes there’s an interview segment with Gina Oliva, the author of Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School.

Gina hit the nail on the head for thousands of deaf people everywhere when she described an amazing phenomenon she refers to as Met Deaf, Wow!

As a mainstream school survivor (or “solitaire,” as she describes it in her book), Gina eventually attended Gallaudet University. It was at the world’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing where she finally met other people who were exactly like her. For once, she was not alone. The shock, the joy, and the awe that comes with meeting your true peers after years of isolation in the mainstream can only be defined as Met Deaf, Wow! in ASL.

I totally understand. The same thing happened to me when I also enrolled at Gallaudet in 1989. I will never forget my immersion into an all-deaf environment. It was pure nirvana.

Gallaudet University is the first place where I found 100% communication accessibility around the clock, 24/7. Not only was it real-time accessibility (communicating directly with people as opposed to a 3-second delay with an interpreter) but it went way beyond regular school hours.

In high school, I had an ASL interpreter from 8:00am to 3:00pm. That was it. At 3:00 I went back into my usual fog. But at Gallaudet there was no end to communication access. Easily understandable ASL conversations took place in the classroom, among friends walking in the hallways, in the cafeteria, at sports events, in the dorm, and so on. Communication never stopped. Not once was I ever left out of a conversation no matter where I was.

From this experience comes the I didn’t know what I was missing epiphany. It happens like this:

Many deaf students, myself included, often pat ourselves on the back for making it in the mainstream. On top of that you also have parents, teachers, support staff, and medical professionals heaping praise on a mainstream student for being “brave” and “fitting in just like any other normal student.” Those of us with deaf voices and "accents" are often told we’re doing wonderful in speech therapy—further misleading us into thinking we’ve mastered The Art of Looking and Talking Just Like a Normal Hearing Person. And, with no frame of reference, we suck it all in. We fall for it hook, line, and sinker. We truly believe we’ve got it made.

But after the inevitable Met Deaf, Wow! experience, we often look back on those days with a more realistic view. Armed with a frame of reference, many of us come to understand that we’d only been faking it—that in retrospect, there was clearly so much we missed out on in the mainstream. If only we’d known!

A classic example is my experience playing baseball on both hearing and deaf teams. I truly had a fantastic time playing baseball on Little League, Pony League, High School and Summer Rec League teams.

Actually, I had a great time on the field. Then I’d contentedly stare out the window while numerous teammates engaged in conversation on the bus ride back to school or the rec center. Hey, I contributed to the team! That was good enough for me. Many coaches marveled at how this brave deaf kid played “just as well as any normal hearing kid.” I fit in! Or did I?

Years later, on the Gallaudet University baseball team, I not only played the game but also took part in strategic dialogue on the field and in the dugout. After the games I found myself fully absorbed in lots of fun stories, jokes, and conversations on the bus rides back to campus. When we stopped somewhere for dinner, there would be even more conversation and jokes. All of it 100% accessible. And that’s precisely when I looked back on the numerous seasons I’d played for hearing teams and realized I didn’t know what I was missing.

And now here’s some food for thought: These experiences at Gallaudet should be the norm for deaf and hard of hearing kids all the way through K-12. But, thanks to PL 94-142, which evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), countless deaf kids are denied such an opportunity.

As for me, I didn’t enroll at Gallaudet until I was twenty-three years old. Twenty-three! Do you want the next generation of deaf kids to wait that long before they can say Met Deaf, Wow?

Gallaudet offered a long overdue, highly enjoyable learning experience. And when you consider the communication accessibility in the classroom, dorms, cafeteria, sports events, theater events, and anything else all over campus, we have a new series of introjects replacing the old.

Gone were:

  • Sit up front.
  • Wear your hearing aids.
  • Read my lips.
  • Hearing-impaired.
In their place were:

  • We’re all the same here.
  • No special treatment. You’re fine.
  • Yes you can. In fact, you can do better.
  • Deaf people can do anything except hear.
  • Deaf Role Models
I can’t say enough about the last one, deaf role models. When you meet deaf doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc.-- of which there are plenty at Gallaudet and the surrounding Metro Washington region—you can’t help but take notice and say, Hey, I can do this. A self-imposed glass ceiling held up by old introjects suddenly shatters. The new introjects clearly indicate the sky’s the limit.

Next in the Deaf Again autoresponder series: What we can do for the next generation of deaf and hard of hearing children.