“If you could restore your hearing, would you?”

The first time I thought about this scenario, I hesitated.

As I’ve mentioned in another post, I grew up with the impression that deafness was this great obstacle to be overcome, to be excised out of my daily life as much as possible. To boot, I grew up in a very religious community that was big on faith healing. My mom, especially, prayed regularly for my hearing to be restored, and I went along with it as a kid. So when I started reading news articles about new advances in treating hearing loss…

By all rights, I should’ve responded with a resounding “yes.” But I didn’t. I was afraid that I would be changing myself. This, even though I’d already gotten a cochlear implant and knew that it didn’t take anything away; it just gave me more access. Whether I wanted it or not– mostly not, for most of my formative years– deafness had already shaped my identity. So, when I thought about taking that away… I paused.

But when I dove deeper into it, I realized that regained hearing couldn’t erase my past experiences, which helped shape the perspective and strengths that I have now. I would still think and feel “deaf,” if that makes sense. It wouldn’t make me un-learn ASL or Cued Speech, or stop hanging out with my d/hh friends; why would I have to give any of those up just because I could hear?

On the contrary, when I started speech therapy last year, I started using my cochlear implant a lot more– I mean, really paying attention to sounds around me and picking out what made people tick when it came to music and spoken language. And things started falling into place, and my world broadened just a little bit more. I stayed me, but now I had more access to the hearing world, and more potential to speak for myself without having to go through interpreters or transliterators. And to me, that’s a good thing.

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Deaf in the Workforce: Discrimination or Disqualification?

Why do deaf people struggle so much with employment? I’ve known so many hard-working, competent people who finally had to swallow their pride and go on SSDI after searching for several years.

The common reason I’ve been given is discrimination: employers don’t want to hire deaf people, because deaf. And to some degree, I do think this is true. I understand why employers would balk when you’re talking about jobs in which you have a lot of face-to-face communication, or safety concerns that rely very much on auditory input. Others, I think, are probably just not very well-informed about what a deaf employee entails; maybe they mistakenly believe that they have to provide an interpreter 40/5, or purchase costly equipment in order to comply with the ADA.

On the other hand… well, there are the resumes I’ve edited for deaf friends. That is usually the first thing the employer sees. If the deaf person’s writing skills weren’t so great and they didn’t get it edited first, I guarantee you it wasn’t “Graduated from _______ School for the Deaf” that got them turned down. Even if the resume passes, any email or text conversation will generally reveal that literacy level right away.

A friend who works in deaf education relayed her experiences with walking her deaf students through written tests. “I have to interpret everything,” she told me, “line by line.” She talked about having to explain what a puzzle was to a 17-year-old student. He was smart, and undoubtedly he’d seen and played with puzzles before, but he didn’t know the English name for it. So when he read that question on a test, “are you good at solving puzzles?”, he had to ask what a puzzle was.

I write and edit for a living. Straight up, I would not hire a majority of deaf and hard of hearing people I’ve met for any job that relied heavily on precise written communication. This has nothing to do with their hearing level and everything to do with their English skills. We must be able to communicate, somehow– if not verbally, then written. Many employers and employees cannot rely on signed-language or cued-language accommodations to be available 24/7.

In a lot of cases, it’s even worse than that. In talking with DVR counselors, I was amazed to find that many of their d/hh clients didn’t even know how to fill out a form for job applications. This could’ve been due to any reason– substandard education, mental impairment, pure laziness– but regardless of the reason, if these people didn’t even have the ability to fill out a form, is it any wonder they struggled so much to find employment?

And when these people try to enter the workforce– as is their right, as they should– how much of that literacy stigma spreads to the deaf and hard of hearing population in general? How much of it is discrimination? How much of it is due to poor reading and writing skills that impact job performance?

I don’t have any good answers here. I just know literacy’s still a huge problem in the d/hh community– I’d say it’s the biggest problem– and it bleeds out into everything. Maybe nowhere more so than your career.

Talk to the Experts!

If there’s just one thing I could tell anybody trying to learn more about the myriad of issues involved in deafness, it’d be this:

If you want to learn more about Cued Speech, ask someone who uses Cued Speech. If you want to learn more about American Sign Language, ask someone who uses American Sign Language. Same for cochlear implants, hearing aids, visual phonics, whatever. And take their word for it. Don’t patronize by implying that they’re an outlier. And don’t mix ’em up– that is, don’t expect an in-depth, balanced view on Alexander Graham Bell or cochlear implants from a 70-year-old Deaf signer. Likewise, a spoken-language proponent may not be terribly knowledgeable about nor sympathetic to Deaf Culture and ASL.

This isn’t to say that you can’t share opinions and resources. But like any other community, the d/hh population has its share of controversial topics, especially regarding children. Bias is always, always a factor. So is lack of knowledge and direct experience. It’s worse if the community itself tends to be rather homogeneous. As a result, misinformation can spread quickly, with no one to correct these. And I can assure you, I’ve seen my share of these with Cued Speech, especially in deaf education.

This isn’t necessarily deliberate, by the way. In my experience, most educational professionals are simply not aware of Cued Speech. If they are, they fall into four broad categories:

1) They don’t know of anyone who uses it and/or have not seen the research, so they may assume that it doesn’t work.

2) They think it’s another variant of Visual Phonics and/or may not see it as a viable communication option.

3) They don’t see the need for it, citing that they use Signed English or a Bi-Bi approach with ASL.

4) They are open to it, but don’t know of any local resources nor demand for it.

Likewise, most d/hh people don’t use or see Cued Speech in action, although most people I meet are very accepting of the fact that I use it, and many are curious about how it works. But for the most part, they don’t know anything beyond what I showed them. Often, a good portion of our initial conversation is debunking misconceptions about Cued Speech.

As for those who had experience with it, including me, most of the feedback has been very positive. I did meet a few who had tried Cued Speech and decided it didn’t work for them, either because of resources or because they just didn’t ‘click’ with it. And that’s fair; everyone is different. The key here is that they tried it out for themselves, and formulated their opinions based on what they had personally encountered. More than that, these people could share the nuances that factored into their situation: a strong family network, mental and physical health, finances, access to resources, etc.

This, by the way, applies to anything in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Take any second-hand experience with a grain of salt.

Our Only Option?

One of my most baffling moments took place in a Deaf Culture class, during a discussion on cochlear implantation. Now, keep in mind that this was a class comprised of mostly hearing students, with two deaf and two hard-of-hearing students. Although one of our textbooks primarily featured ASL and Deaf culture, we did also use another one that shared a variety of viewpoints on issues such as cochlear implants, sign language, spoken language, etc.

Naturally, one day the topic of cochlear implants came up for discussion. We’d publicly discussed our experiences with the implant as part of that class: the other deaf student and I had been implanted; she stopped using hers in middle or high school, but I still used mine. Both of us were implanted at young ages without our input, but neither of us resented our parents for it. One of the hard-of-hearing students was considering an implant for herself; the other didn’t think he needed one.

Our Deaf professor asked the four of us if we would consider implanting our own children as infants. Our answers ranged from “it depends” to “yeah, I would.” The important bit here is that none of us objected to cochlear implantation in and of itself. We agreed it depended on things like the kid’s health, his level of hearing loss, if we thought he would benefit from it, etc.

The professor then turned his question to the rest of the class. I think maybe one or two people raised their hands. He reversed the question: “OK, how many of you would not implant your child if you had a deaf or hard of hearing kid?”

The entire class raised their hands.

To me, it’d have made more sense if some of the students raised their hands– it’s a pretty big decision, after all– but every single one of them? Were they not seeing the irony in this? This entire roomful of hearing people chose to align with a few heavily-tailored opinions in textbooks over the direct experiences of four, living, breathing deaf and hard of hearing people right there with them? Not even an “it depends”? (And implantation is very much an “it depends” scenario.)

The reasons proffered were not much better: “I guess I just feel like she’s deaf, she should have access to her natural language,” or “It’s not my right to change her.” By this point, I and the other girl had shared our experiences with our implants throughout the semester, emphasizing that it was a tool and didn’t change who we were. Our use of sign language demonstrated that implantation didn’t preclude sign language nor involvement in the Deaf community. I had also stated– and I’d hope my online posts in our class discussion forums would have proved this– that English was my native language, not ASL. We had also discussed, at length, the difficulties that deaf people had in finding visual accommodations since so much of the world was geared toward auditory means. So, my first thought was pretty much, “Uh, didn’t you guys hear a single thing any of us said?”

This was, unfortunately, not the first or last time I would encounter something like this: hearing students, apparently educated to view American Sign Language and “full” deafness (no cochlear implants or hearing aids) as our “natural” or only option, regardless of what they had personally seen in the local community. I especially noticed this trend in interpreting or deaf education fields. I don’t know; it just feels so out of touch to me. And I worry/wonder how that affects the next crop of interpreters or educators.

Choosing Your Cultural & Linguistic Identity

Cherokee blood runs strong in my dad’s side of the family. Both my grandparents spoke Cherokee, and my grandfather won awards for his work teaching the Cherokee language. My siblings and I are registered members of the Cherokee Nation, with tribal cards to prove our ancestry. Yes, we have literal, honest-to-God race cards, and I’m playing mine here.

The thing is, I don’t speak nor read a lick of Cherokee, although I’d love to change that this year. I was just not exposed to it growing up. Hence, it’s not my natural nor native language. My physical makeup—other than the neurons in my brain that drive language development—had nothing to do with that. My dad tried to expose us to Cherokee history and culture as much as he could during our annual visits to Oklahoma, and we picked up on some Cherokee mannerisms from his side of the family, but for the most part, I was raised in working/middle-class settings, with predominantly German/Irish/Polish Americans. I live in the South now, and people here can often tell that I’m from the North; that’s closer to my cultural norm. So I think I can safely say that Cherokee is not my “natural” culture. I could learn a lot more about Cherokee, and grow to identify with the culture, but it would still be a learning curve, about as much as if I moved to China and tried to immerse with the natives there.

In that same strain, I am biologically deaf. But I don’t consider myself predisposed to ASL or Deaf Culture, especially Deaf Culture from those more than 2-3 generations before me. My native language is English, and I’m much more familiar with hearing culture than I am with Deaf culture. And I’m not the only one. Due to cochlear implantation and mainstreaming, the d/hh community (including the Deaf subset) has seen much more diversity in the past 20 or so years.

Another thing to consider is that, had the Cherokee Nation required that every one of its members speak Cherokee and live in Cherokee communities, regardless of any other considerations like the living standards of these communities, our access to resources, our interactions with non-Cherokee, our personal preferences, etc… I am quite certain they would have met with strong resistance, especially from my dad’s family. Not because their members don’t value Cherokee language and culture, but because people generally don’t like being told what to do.

I’m grateful that I learned ASL and studied Deaf history and culture. It helped me solidify an integral part of my identity in my early 20s, a time when I think pretty much everyone struggles with that kind of thing. I’m also grateful that Dad took us to Cherokee museums and re-enactments, and had us read books on our ancestors, and told us stories about his childhood in rural Oklahoma. But the thing is, it was all a gift. It wasn’t forced on me, and I didn’t have to trade off one culture for another.

Times are changing, as they always have and always will. I think most of us would like the freedom to determine our own cultural identities, not according to someone else’s cultural ideal.

“Forcing” Cued Speech on Students?

Many of you in the cueing community know about the furor over the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, IL. For those of you who don’t, here’s a rundown: in 2011, the Illinois School for the Deaf started a pilot program that utilized Cued English in a bilingual program. Over the next two or so years, it expanded the program to other classes.

At some point last year, the school sent out a letter to parents that offered a Cued Speech track for interested parties. In part, this is where the confusion and controversy has been coming from. Some Deaf people have taken up arms against the use of Cued Speech in ISD; others worry that it’s being used to replace ASL.

A common allegation is that Cued Speech is being “forced” on students– in some cases, against their parents’ wills. The thing is, if you know anything about IEPs (Individualized Education Program), you know how unlikely that is. Each student’s IEP is determined based on what the parents choose, ideally with the kid’s input as well. The school cannot legally deviate from that IEP.

In other words, if the student’s IEP specifies that he be taught using ASL, then ASL is what he will get. Same for Cued Speech, Signed English, Visual Phonics, whatever.  Schools are legally mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) to provide the best services that they can in order to provide an accessible education to their students.  This IEP is revisited every year for every student and they can change it however they want, whenever they want.  This is true of ISD as much as anybody else.

“Natural” Language for the Deaf?

Sometimes I see articles and social media posts that imply, or flat-out declare that American Sign Language is deaf children’s “natural” language. This isn’t the case for me, nor for the majority of cuers that I know.

Language isn’t innate, and it doesn’t develop in isolation. Your L1 language is whatever you were consistently exposed to during the critical period of language development. You can also grow up with more than one L1 language simultaneously– that’s not uncommon outside of the United States. In fact, multilingualism’s demonstrable benefits for cognitive function is a big reason why I strongly advocate for learning both Cued Speech and sign language.

That said, as much as I love ASL, it is not my natural language. English is. I grew up with Cued English, and although I used some Signed English, I did not start learning full-fledged ASL until I entered college. I’m not an outlier here; I know several d/hh people who prefer English over sign, or are more fluent in English than sign, or learned English well before they learned sign. In fact, I don’t see very many “pure” ASL users outside of the residential school communities (most likely due to mainstreaming). The majority of d/hh people I know tend to use a mixture of spoken/Signed English and ASL.

This isn’t meant to be a value judgement; it’s just how things turned out. We were exposed to English growing up, so that became our L1 language– not American Sign language.