A Deaf Man Emphasizes Self-esteem

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Half-loaf vs. Full-loaf

This is not about one-upmanship (my job's better than your job, my book's coming out sooner than your book, I dated more girls than you did... etc etc), but instead about quality of life. And Im talking about a quality that goes beyond materialistic gain. I know several pro-oral and pro-deaf who are in highly esteemed professions and make truckloads of money. Likewise, I know several from both groups who are barely getting by. This is off the point. Many people have more money than they know what to do with, yet say their lives have been miserable.

The point I am trying to make is that my life sucked when I tried to fit in with hearing people. Some people shrugged this off as my own problem, saying something about how they were just my "hangups". Fine, so be it, lets say I had a number of hangups. Regardless, they were gone after I became part of the deaf world.

This brings us to the "half-loaf" thing that several people have mentioned. I had pointed out that social situations with exclusively hearing people can be somewhat limiting for a deaf person like myself; even with my relatively good lipreading skills, I am limited to participating in one-on-one conversations with hearing people who dont sign. In group situations I usually miss out no matter how hard I try to be involved. Someone replied with the rationalization that "half a loaf is better than none." Why should I settle for a half-loaf? My loaf in the deaf community is FULL, and Im enjoying every minute of it. This may pose a dilemma for some hearing parents of deaf children.

A Dilemma for Hearing Parents of Deaf Children

The following story may pose a dilemma for some hearing parents of deaf children.

Anyway, here's the story: before I went to Gallaudet, I had played baseball for my hearing high school team and later softball in a local bar league. These teams won a number of championships and I generally had a great time. I didnt really communicate that much with anyone, I just went as far as my speech and speechreading skills could take me (I lost my hearing around age 6 or 7, so my speech/communication skills are not that bad). Somewhat limited, but I made the most of it. In fact, I was USED to being left out in group discussions, so much that it didnt bother me... it just glazed over me.

After going to Gallaudet however, I had the pleasure of playing on the varsity baseball team as well as deaf softball teams which played in local leagues, regional and national tournaments. WHOA! What an experience... I was in on EVERYTHING. The camaraderie, deep discussions, group conversations... nothing went over my head. In fact, I was often able to be a leader in many situations, something which rarely (if ever) happened on the hearing teams I played for.

Now jumping back to 1995... I have finished school and moved back home. I have rejoined my old hearing softball team, and... its just not the same. This time around, I KNOW Im missing a lot of fun conversation, and it bothers me. I look around and see people talking, and I realize "hey, Im totally lost here". The first time around, it didnt bother me as much because I didnt know what I was missing. Now I do. My remedy? When the team goes out for a drink after the game, I only stay for a short while. Why should I be a phony and stand around smiling like a moron, pretending to have fun? I used to do this before I developed a sense of deaf pride and dignity... now I stick around til Im bored, then leave... or call a deaf friend to come over. I also still play for a deaf team, and theres just no comparison in terms of quality of socialization and memorable experiences.

Now my question to the parents is, would you rather shield a deaf child from the deaf community so that he/she doesnt know what he/she is missing and is more likely to tolerate the hearing world? Or would you rather let him/her go have a great time in the deaf world, collecting many valuable experiences and cherished memories... at the risk that he/she may feel that the hearing world isn't as much fun anymore? The story I just shared has both encouraged and scared off a number of parents depending on their philosophy... so Im eager to see what the deaf-l'ers have to say about this :)

Cochlear implants - the full-loaf perspective

Concerning the topic of cochlear implants, I agree it is not my role to tell parents what to do, but I do believe my perspective is worth considering. With my full loaf in the deaf community, I can effortlessly enjoy everything that goes on around me. In the hearing world, I have to strain and struggle to make an effort. I do not in any way shun the hearing world (I maintain my relationships with hearing friends and family), but its the deaf world that gives me a sense of belonging and true happiness. Dont we all deserve a chance to have a full loaf where we are most likely to fit in the best?

All I can say is I feel no need for the cochlear implant. I prefer to be myself, to be the deaf man I am, no matter whether I am with hearing people or deaf people. I will not put all sorts of electronic gizmos in my head to try to be like hearing people. I interact with hearing people, but if I dont understand them, I just tell them Im deaf and ask them to speak more clearly or write things down. Im not going to blow $40,000 + trying to model myself after hearing people (sorry Lew, Im not as rich as you). Suppose you met people of another race or culture; would you demand that they paint their faces so that their skin color would match yours? Ask them to go home and put on clothes that match your style? Hell no. Everyone is a unique individual. I dont think people need to put themselves through any ordeal such as the cochlear implant to be accepted.

Incidently, I know three people who have CI's.... one is a late deafened woman who is doing quite well with it. I respect her decision and it should be noted in the medical profession that it worked for her. The other two are not late deafened (one is in his twenties, the other is a seven year old girl), and let me tell you that they are MISERABLE (parents forced the CI on both). This, too, must be taken into account.

Also, someone supported giving kids a CI at as early an age as possible to take advantage of a crucial "window" communication-wise. Good point, but Im still not sure. With deaf kids, this "window" definitely exists, and all experience shows that it is best taken advantage of by using SIGN LANGUAGE, not electronics. I admit that when I came to Gallaudet, I had somewhat of a chip on my shoulder (sound like anyone we know here? :) ) and thought I was better than everyone. My English skills were a lot better than quite a number of the deaf students there, and I looked down on them. Later on, though, I swallowed my pride. These "lousy-English deaf" had far more leadership skills (which can only be learned amongst ones peers) than I. It took me quite a while to catch up. Furthermore, I met a number of deaf students who had excellent language development, in both ASL and English. You know whats coming, no surprise here... they were mostly deaf children of deaf adults.... the others lost their hearing after they picked up a good language base (like myself). It seems to me that this "window" of opportunity for deaf children is best taken advantage of with sign language. As far as the CI goes, I dont believe its worth the hassle.

Getting off the soapbox, let me close with a neutral point. For those of you who are still fuming over the whole issue, I recommend two books. One is Henry Kisor's "Whats That Pig Outdoors". Kisor pretty much adds credence to Lew's arguments. I disagree with a number of Kisor's points, but its good reading nonetheless. After that book, I suggest following up with Cheryl Heppner's "Seeds of Disquiet". Heppner at first gives a similar account of what Kisor went through, then goes on with the "I didnt know what I was missing" theme after she became part of the deaf world. Lew, I give you credit for all of your accomplishments, but there are those like Heppner and myself who need the support and empowerment of the deaf community. I cant say Im wrong, youre right, or Im right, youre wrong. Both of our views must be clear for all to see. :)

Deaf Pride is working

Its easier to be proud of oneself when someone is Deaf living as a Deaf. I remember at a Deaf school in my old neighborhood, hearing kids would be outside watching the Deaf kids playing on the school basketball court. Yep, some of them did make fun of them, perhaps using your chimpanzee analogy. Did the Deaf kids feel embarrassed? Did they stick their tails between their legs? No, they invited the hearies to climb over the fence and have a nice Deaf vs. Hearie pickup game. Deafies won, but that was beyond the point. They were not embarrassed at being Deaf, had Deaf pride, and made some new friends. My point against the CI was that two kids I know who are now in the Deaf world failed miserably with the CI... because they were alone. Signers are not alone.

Oral and CI organizations are dangerous to the prelingually Deaf self-esteem

If you will read Cheryl Heppner's "Seeds of Disquiet", you will see that she blames organizations like Alexander Graham Bell for "screwing up an entire generation of deaf children". Organizations for oralists and CI's may be good for those who want to belong, but when its beliefs are imposed on parents of deaf kids, it deprives the kids of a chance to choose who they want to be.

Through my own experience, I have seen this happen... what comes out of it is unrealistic expectations and pressures for deaf children. Once, while I happened to use my voice at an Early Intervention workshop, a number of parents wanted to know nothing except how they could get their prelingually deaf kids to speak like I could. It would have been a waste of time.

Also, I have more examples which make me wary of certain "Be As Hearing as Possible" organizations. You will have to wait til my book comes out to see more details. And no, Im not warbling off some "pseudopsychobabble", Im basing my argument on actual clinical observations. Among them are incidences of denial and incredibly low self-esteem. So, its sticky: on one hand, its great for people of similar communication styles (oralist, cued speech, ASL, whatever) to have an organization with common goals; on the other hand, when unrealistic expectations are imposed on parents of deaf kids, such as with the CI, then it screws up those kids just like Heppner pointed out.

I will not deny that my opinions here may seem biased. They are, but they are based on my own experience, education and observations. You may counter them, and hopefully our arguments will give parents of deaf kids more to think about. For me, it is hard to accept the "Its a Hearing World"-type of organizations because I can get along just fine in the hearing world being the deaf guy I am. No need for speech therapy, implants, and so on. It just seems natural to be myself and integrate with both the deaf and hearing worlds as I am.

For example, take a look at the NAACP; they are a powerful organization united for the purpose of the advancement and fair treatment of the African-American race. Do you see any African-Americans setting up a rival organization called the IWBW (I Wanna Be White) in which they discuss ways to have skin pigmentation implants and study the mannerisms of other races in hopes of copying them? Hell no. The same goes for any other ethnic culture, except for the deaf culture. It seems that deaf culture is the only one upon which values of an outside group are consistently imposed on.

What makes me even MORE wary is that I hardly see any CI people or oralists admit their shortcomings. I, as a deaf man, will admit that I have many. I see many workshops where the issue is related to how the deaf community can improve on certain areas which we feel are lacking. On the other hand, there was a CI convention (attended by an audiologist I know) in which there was the kind of attitude you would find at a revivalist meeting; everyone was in a frenzy ("hallelujah, we can make the deaf hearing") and only heard what they wanted to hear. Only one guy gave an actual objective report, with BOTH pros and cons, and he was rudely received.

The Aikido Attitude

In many martial arts styles, particularly Aikido, the best way to survive is to go with the flow or direction of attack. For example, if a 300 pound man threw a punch at me, I would be foolish to use my force to counter his. If I tried to forcefully block his punch, my arm (among other things) may be broken. However, if I roll WITH his punch, stepping back and deflecting it slightly, letting his weight carry him past me, then I will have a much easier time surviving.

Similarly, with deafness, I feel that by getting an implant and all of the related services, I would be going against the force of nature. It would be a constant uphill battle, and a weary one at that. It is much easier to just be deaf: if I cant understand anyone, I say "excuse me, Im deaf" and then the person speaks slower or writes down what he has to say. And I also have more rewarding, deeper relationships with those in the deaf community (including hearing people who sign), which is much gratifying than the "half-a-loaf" life I led in a hearing high school.

Your deaf child will do better in life if you don't try to fix him/her

First of all, I respect that parents who submit their deaf children to any kind of technological procedure related to "curing" deafness are only doing what they think is best for their kids. You love them, you want them to have the best quality of life attainable... that is perfectly normal.

Interestingly though, there's a paradox in the works here whenever you try to "fix" a deaf child. The focus is on the etiology and the technology; what's not working? Why? How can we fix it? And so on. The problem is, while you fuss over the child's deafness and how to fix it, you hurt his or her psyche.

Any young child, when subject to numerous audiological tests and procedures, is given the hidden message that deafness is bad. The child will spend the rest of his or her life thinking "deafness is bad, I am deaf, therefore I am bad, therefore I must be as much like a hearing person as possible." Can you imagine the implications of living your whole life trying to be something you're not? Face it, for all the hearing aids and cochlear implants, deaf people can NOT become hearing. They can remotely resemble hearing people at best, but never BE hearing people. Maybe they can learn to speak, respond to certain sounds (it all varies depending on the individual), but they will never be 100 percent hearing. In fact, they will always be miserable in group situations (ask any deaf adult about the dreaded "Dinner Table Syndrome" which could easily be circumvented if family members took the trouble to learn sign language).

Speaking from experience, being deaf myself, I can fill you in on the pitfalls of hearing family/peers/educators expecting a deaf individual to try to become as hearing as possible. I went to one of the best schools in Philadelphia (Germantown Friends School) and got an excellent education. I used my speech, I used hearing aids occasionally, and appeared to blend in pretty well. My education was top notch, but other areas were lacking, especially self-esteem. Dates and a social life were non-existent. During weekly music classes in the ninth grade, I would embarrassingly sneak off and hide in the library because I couldnt keep up with the choir. Not ONCE did I have the pride to stand up and say "Hey, you can't expect a deaf guy to sing in a large choir, that's ridiculous." Because of all my previous experiences with hearing aids, speech therapy, and the general attitude of the hearing members of my family (the old "its a hearing world" philosophy they imposed on me), I was convinced that I had to look and act hearing. There were always inevitable situations which are impossible for deaf people to be involved with (such as aforementioned choir class), and it always resulted in shame and guilt.

Professionally, I was blessed with a great education, but was never able to fully participate in group situations. NO deaf person can be 100 percent effective in a group situation with hearing people, no matter whether they have cochlear implants or not. Even with an interpreter (which I had in my later years of high school) a deaf child cannot be fully involved, as he/she receives information slightly AFTER it has occured. Often,by the time I received input and thought of an appropriate response, another student had already answered the question. Thus I felt "lower" than my hearing counterparts and let me tell you, there is a "glass ceiling" on deaf people trying to blend in with the hearing... it is both real and somewhat self-imposed. For example, many of the students in my school set their sights (successfully) on colleges like Harvard, Yale, Brown, and so on. I, however, based on my interactive skills with hearing people (which resulted in absolutely NO leadership skills whatsoever), relegated myself to the lowest of expectations. "I never was as good as they were" and "I'll never accomplish as much as they will" were thoughts which were automatically implanted in my mind. I had tried to become a hearing person, and failed, so I assumed I would fail in everything else as well. I eventually became a clerk in a supermarket, and actually made the career goal of staying there for the rest of my life, MAYBE becoming department manager, maybe not... but it was okay, because for a deaf guy, I figured, that was pretty good.

Fast forward a few years now... through some lucky and blessed events, I somehow wound up at Gallaudet University, the only university in the world for deaf people. BOOM, all of a sudden I met people who were just like me. BOOM, all of a sudden I realized that deafness is not something that is bad, or must be covered up. BOOM, my self-esteem shot up. BOOM, I was able to participate in group situations (para-professional employment, baseball team, fraternity, and all class activities). BOOM, I had access to my natural language and everything around me.

As a genuine deaf person, I was able to set my sights higher, earn my B.A. and an M.A. and get a great job which I never would have dared envisioning myself in as the old pseudo-hearing person I was years earlier. I have also decided I want to go for a Ph.D. (another thing I never would have dared dream of back when I tried to be a hearing person), and am in the process of writing a book which is somewhat related to some of the things I have said here.

Moral of the story: if you have deaf kids, don't try to "fix" them. Let them be who they are, and let them be proud of who they are. Let them have the benefit of interacting with other deaf peers and develop healthy social/leadership skills. Above all, show support for who they are and what they do. Never try encouraging them to be something they're not.

Some people have dismissed my experiences as isolated incidences, insisting that what happened to me, happened to me only. However, many similar experiences have been observed in studies of deaf children. Thousands of deaf children have struggled through their lives being forced to be something they are not. The implications thereof have been documented. There is an article by Stanley Krippner and Harry Easton, titled "Deafness: An Existential Interpretation"... and it drives home the point I've been trying to make. I highly recommend reading the whole article. For now, I offer you the following excerpt:

"If parents are not able to accept the fact that their child is deaf and continually seek 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 to other deaf individuals and to the world in a genuine manner." --- Stanley Krippner & Harry Easton

Last update date: 
2007 Nov 21