Deaf Again Autoresponder Course Part Seven

People need to realize there’s a big difference between “fitting in” and “belonging.” Fitting in is something I did when I immersed myself in the hearing world. Fitting in requires effort. It’s exhausting and you can argue that it’s not really genuine because to one degree or the other, it involves trying to win other people’s approval. Belonging, on the other hand, is a far more rewarding phenomenon where you can kick back, be yourself, and know you are accepted. This is far more authentic and often happens in the presence of one’s true peers.

--From Chapter 14 of Deaf Again




Although I and countless other deaf advocates do our best to shed more light on the deaf experience, we still encounter plenty of resistance in the mainstream world. It’s understandable, really.

Going back to the diagnostic crisis that was covered in Part One, most parents go through a mourning process when they first discover their child is deaf. They’re mourning the loss of their hearing child. Never mind that the child is still very much alive and has a ton of potential. The possibility of a deaf child thriving in today’s cold cruel world often doesn’t look good to most parents.

The first line of support for these parents is often hospital staff or other professionals in the medical field. Of course these people are going to do their best to fix the physical aspect of the problem—that’s their job. Hearing aids, speech therapy, cochlear implants, etc., will be the first (and probably only) options a parent of a deaf child encounters.

From there, the ideal of fitting in with the hearing world gains momentum. The concept that the presence or absence of sound has little to do with a person’s overall happiness simply doesn’t register with the world at large. So the battle to get deaf kids to fit in rages on.

What the world at large doesn’t realize, however, is that such a battle can actually seem quiet absurd—unethical, even—if viewed in a different light. For example:

  • If you took one kid of a particular race or ethnic group and placed him in a school where all of the other kids were of a different race or ethnicity, you can bet this one minority kid would feel uncomfortable. You can also bet his parents wouldn’t be too happy and that they’d take immediate action to remedy the situation. Put one girl in an all-boys school or a boy in an all-girls school and you’ll get the same result. However, it’s deemed perfectly acceptable to take one deaf kid and place him in a school where everyone else is hearing.
  • If you pulled aside any children of a racial or ethnic minority and told them they needed to act more white, they and their families would be insulted (and rightfully so). However, it’s perfectly acceptable to take a deaf kid and spend countless hours teaching him how to look and talk like a hearing person.
  • As mentioned in Part Six, it’s perfectly acceptable for hearing babies, high school students, and college students to learn ASL. Deaf babies and deaf children, on the other hand, are often denied this opportunity.
  • Segregation—at least from a racial and ethnic perspective—was banned decades ago. But today, it’s still a perfectly acceptable practice to segregate signing and oral deaf children.
  • If a teacher at any school went on a leave of absence and his or her replacement spoke no English, you can bet there’d be a furor and parents would have this substitute teacher removed. But when a teacher in a deaf school is replaced by someone with little or no signing skill, most people don’t make an issue out of it.
As you can see, the primary focus for most deaf children in today’s world is to get them to fit in--sometimes at the expense of their human rights. The problem with this is that a lot of us forget it’s more important to find a place where we belong. Let me repeat this comparison for emphasis:

Fitting in takes effort. It’s exhausting and you can argue that it’s not really genuine because to one degree or the other, it involves trying to win other people’s approval.

Belonging is a far more rewarding phenomenon where you can kick back, be yourself, and know you are accepted. This is far more authentic and often happens in the presence of one’s true peers.

Too many deaf and hard of hearing kids are forced to fit in… alone. I refer you back to Gina Oliva’s captivating book, Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School for numerous interviews, quotes, examples, and research backing up the unfortunate “Solitaire” experience that is the norm for most deaf children in mainstream schools all over the country.

I also refer you to an anthology titled On the Fence: The Hidden World of the Hard of Hearing where several writers of all ages confessed to similar frustrating experiences. So although Deaf Again is written in autobiographical format, I can assure you with utmost confidence that my story is not just one person’s experience. There are thousands, if not millions, who are in the same boat. It’s time to wake up.

There’s a powerful quote from Stanley Krippner and Harry Easton that jarred me awake. I’d like to share it with you. Here it is from their article titled Deafness: An Existential Interpretation:

If parents are not able to accept the fact that their child is deaf and continue to deny the implications of the deafness, the resulting effects on the child are to encourage his own denial and lack of authenticity. Such a child is thus unable to accept himself and his capacity to emerge or become a unique person is blocked. He lives an existential lie and becomes unable to relate to himself and other deaf individuals and to the world in a genuine manner.

When I first read the above quote—in a Psychosocial Aspects of Deafness course in grad school—it absolutely obliterated any remnants of deficit thinking I had left. If it really is possible to have a sudden awakening—Nirvana!—in a mere instant, then this was it. Finally I truly understood.

I finally understood why I continued to participate in grade school and junior high school choir classes (lip-synching, of course) after that My Gal Road the Boat Outdoors fiasco in first grade. I finally understood why I had “nodded” with so many hearing family, friends, and teachers. I finally understood why I had become an inauthentic character I would later refer to as “Super Phony” during my days as a humor columnist (believe me, there were plenty of embarrassing moments to write about). Later, I would learn about the concept of introjects and that fit in perfectly with the Krippner & Easton quote above.

Problems flew out the window. They were replaced by solutions—solutions that can lead to a far more authentic life for deaf children. And they are:

  • Early exposure to American Sign Language
  • Opportunity to interact with deaf peers and role models
  • A holistic approach focusing on the whole person as opposed to just focusing on the ears.
And, oh yes, there’s one more thing. In the Gestalt Theory & Practice course I took under the tutelage of Dolly Schulman, the recommended intervention for introjection is as follows:

Establish within the individual a sense of choices.

(One caveat: The deaf community isn't too fond of the word "choices" because it implies "pick one" when in fact you can have it all. We prefer the word "opportunities." Nonetheless, the gist of the above quote is correct.)

You’d be amazed at the impact this remarkably simple guideline could have on deaf children all over the world. It's still a sad truth that for many deaf kids, a communication method that works isn't offered until after they've already failed at a sequential list of preferred options as recommended by a medical specialist or a school district.

But could you imagine how much better it would be if all opportunities were fairly presented at the very beginning? Wouldn't it be great if parents could immediately select a combination of approaches that best met the specific needs of their children, or if they had a Plan B to fall back on right away if Plan A wasn't a good fit? Just imagine how different things would be if people were a bit more open-minded. Think about that for a moment. Then go out there and make a difference.

That’s all there is to it. It’s that simple. And this brings us back to the e.e. cummings quote at the beginning of Part Two:

The hardest fight a man has to fight is to live in a world where every single day someone is trying to make you someone you do not want to be.

Best regards,

Mark Drolsbaugh

NOTE: For more information regarding the book Deaf Again, go to http://www.deaf-culture-online.com/deaf-again.html