M. Richard Horrell-Schmitz
Some of my friends, hearing and Deaf, have said that I am “privileged” to have intelligible speech and can’t understand why I have chosen to live a Deafer life—to not use my hearing aids any longer and to choose not to use spoken English with hearing people.
“If I could talk, I would! It would be so much more efficient, just seems easier” one Deaf friend says.
“Why don’t you use your voice anymore? You have such good speech. Now it is harder for me to understand you,” a speech therapist in my county program tells me.
“Your voice is always understandable, and sounds almost normal. I don’t know why you would choose to sign when the hearing world is so much bigger than the world of signing,” a hearing colleague.
They just can’t seem to understand why I would “reject” that part of myself. But that’s just it; I am NOT “rejecting” my hearing self. Rather, I am embracing my Deaf self.
See, I have been that hard of hearing guy who caters to hearing bosses, supervisors, coworkers, and anyone else, really. I have tried to be as hearing as I could for nearly a decade. And through the past decade I have come to a surprising realization—no matter how “close-to-hearing” I am, I will never be accepted as one of them, only a sad, broken, facsimile of someone whole. Because to them, someone with a “hearing loss” is “hearing-impaired,” or, less-than-hearing. And when we try to be like them, we are reinforcing our brokenness by the very act of pretending to be whole.
I wanted so badly to be “normal.” I tried everything I could think of—I wore two hearing aids, grew my hair to cover my ears, tried not to look like I wasn’t confused when I really had no idea what people were saying, and even avoided signing friends. I was as close to hearing as anyone hard of hearing ever could be—and I was miserable—and I was alone.
I want you to understand that “playing hearing” is more than just using amplification. It’s more like being African-American and waking up each morning to put on makeup to hide my blackness to be more like white America. It’s more like waking up as a woman each morning and hiding my feminine features, gluing on fake stubble and trying to blend in better with the “good ol’ boys” who chauvinistically dominate women in the work place. Though those examples seem extreme, and even offensive to consider, that is something I did every day.
Discriminated Against in DC:
It sounds great to say “I was a legislative assistant to a Congressperson in his DC office.” But the way I got that job is an embarrassment to me now. I had a hearing friend call for my required phone interview. He could sign a little and we rehearsed in advance well enough that he could make is seem like he was me. He did such a good job at “being me” that I was not even involved in my own interview all that much. I sat there, like an idiot, watching “me” get my dream job. Sure, my resume and grades and experiences were what won me the interview in the first place, but the embarrassment, the feeling of impotence, as I sat there stupidly wondering how “I” was doing in my own interview still hurts.
There were a lot of little things that hurt about that year… when I arrived in DC and walked into the Office wearing a suit I could hardly afford, without a place to stay and without a friend in the city… when the secretary asked if she could help me and I spoke, in my own voice for the first time that I was the new hire here to start my new job… when she said, “there must be some mistake, I will have to talk with the Congressman; please take a seat.”… when I was assigned to a job I was not hired for, instead of handling tobacco law and water rights, I was the copy and errand boy… when I didn’t have interpreters for meetings… when I pretended to know what was going on… when they went to lunch without inviting me… when I was not rehired the next season, despite having done everything I was asked to perfectly… when the Congressman said, “we are looking for someone who could more easily keep in touch with the constituents” (meaning hear on the phone)… when I came home again after changing my whole life around to get that job… when I spent that whole time trying my damndest to be as hearing as possible and still they rejected me…
Sadly, I didn’t give up playing hearing yet.
People react with surprise and respect when I mention having gone to law school. But there, too, I played the fool. I used CART, captioning services instead of an interpreter, because I didn’t want anyone to know I “couldn’t hear.” But it never worked right. In law school, teachers generally used a Socratic Method of teaching—they would ask questions to various students whom would then lead the class with their answers. Trouble is, the microphone, on the lapel of the teacher, could never receive the answers students gave. Here is a little excerpt from a Torts class as an example:
PRFSR: “Ms. Douglass, can you please explain for us how you would determine whether there is a legitimate case for civil battery in this instance?”
STDNT: ….**inaudible**…. establish whether…. A duty…. **Inaudible** … **inaudible**… causality… But first (or butt first)… **inaudible** even particulate matter constitutes … **inaudible**…. …. …. (I’m sorry, I just can’t hear her at all. Is she way in the back?) … **inaudible** in awarding…. **inaudible**… … …
PRFSR: Very nicely done Ms. Douglass. You have clearly identified duty, breach, causation, and even damages in this case. That is a perfect answer, and the type of clear legal analysis I hope to find in all of your blue books come semester’s end. That’s all for today, read Manlove for Tuesday and I will pick the student least attentive to address the issues with the class.
This was how the whole of my law school experiences looked. And, again, I wasn’t through playing hearing yet.
Deficit Thinking in Deaf Education:
I felt that I had failed in the hearing world of politics and failed in the world of law. What was left for me? Deaf Education? Would I be free to explore my Deaf self as a Deaf human being in Deaf Education?
As it turns out, that was where I did discover my Deaf self, but after reaching depths of dysconscious audism I didn’t know was possible. I was the only Deaf person working for this program at the time of my hire. No one used ASL. Everyone believed in TC or Sim Com, and I goose-stepped in line with the oppressors. I came into my interview for a Deaf Education teaching position speaking English the whole time. I spoke English to every staff person. And wore my hearing aids to be more like them every chance I could. I was well practiced in my role playing game and I was at the peak of my craft.
Though I used only ASL in the classroom and shared Deaf culture videos with my students, and invited Deaf community members to the class on a regular basis, I still was trying so hard, though less consciously, to be hearing. What kind of an influence does this kind of behavior have on developing Deaf children?
Over the first couple of years at this, I slowly began to change. For one, I stopped socializing with hearing staff persons entirely, I didn’t embrace my Deafhood, yet, by any means, but I began to reject my hearingness little by little. Until one day, I entered a staff meeting without an interpreter, for the first time in three years, and I signed to everyone there that I would no longer allow them to host the county staff meetings in my classroom if they didn’t sign—moreover that I would no longer voice for them.
“I always give you the luxury of 100% understanding in your primary language, and what do I get back? Maybe 25% of that through an interpreter as you all speak English more than one at a time and leave me out. Well, from now on, its ASL in here.”
The meeting went on in sign (I wouldn’t call it ASL, by any means) the first time this had ever happened. And finally I was fully involved! I went further and told my whole staff of interpreters “in this room, you sign ASL or get out. No more Sim Com. No more voice and kinda sign… ASL or out.”
Over the next several months, the interpreters improved in their signing skills, the students felt more empowered and equal and I felt as if I had made my first real contribution to my community. I don’t remember when, exactly, but I haven’t even seen my hearing aids in months and no one comes into my classroom blabbing away in spoken English any more. Students have mentioned the change. Parents have mentioned an improvement in their children’s self esteem. And those hearing teachers have shown me more respect than I have ever received as my former audist self.
I have done a lot more since then to further the cause—to further cleanse this program of audism, but I am not nearly done. There is still a great deal left to do, inside myself, and in my program here. But the curtain has dropped on my little performance and I will no longer “play hearing” and cater to those who will never respect me for who I am.
And to all those who think speaking English as a Deaf person is a privilege, let me respectfully disagree. It is very, very hard to find your place in the world as an oral/aural hard of hearing person. We are neither hearing nor Deaf. We will never truly be respected and or accepted as equal to hearing when all we are is some broken version of them. As an oral/aural hard of hearing person, I am, at best, “almost normal.” As an ASL Deaf, I am something different, special, unique, interesting, beautiful, and, above all, NOT a sad broken version of them. I am whole.
The more Deaf I am, the more respect, authority and independence I have. The more Deaf I am the more at peace I am. The more Deaf I am, the less audism I see in me. And the more Deaf I am, the happier my life has been. And the more Deaf I am, the truer to myself I am.
I still carry the wounds of my life as an actor, but they have begun to fade as I have begun my Deafhood journey.
Thank you to all of you in the Deaf Community who were here to help guide me toward Deafhood. Without you, I may still have been playing a losing game.