Sunday, September 15, 2013

I'm Deaf, Not Stupid

Most expert advice is not as insightful or useful as the first article I read in 2006 after I was hospitalized with meningitis, in a coma for three weeks, and woke up 100 percent deaf in both ears.  “So you’ve had meningitis and now you’re deaf,” the article began.  “Boy, are you lucky!”

First person accounts of being deaf are scant enough that if you Google the subject, you may even find some of my own limited distribution writing.  I am now a member of several deaf groups on Facebook, where I learned about a memoir from a writer, deaf from childhood as a result of meningitis.  Henry Kisor, former book review editor of  The Chicago Sun-Times and successful writer of mystery novels in his retirement, entitled his memoir of deafness, What’s That Pig Outdoors?  Lip-readers and hearing impaired experienced with assistive listening devices will understand the joke.  The actual sentence represented by that nonsensical question was “What’s that big loud noise?”  Best guesses are glasses always neither half full nor half empty.  They’re just glasses with something more or less unidentifiable inside.

Henry Kisor lost his hearing to meningitis as a toddler, but his parents were strong, intelligent, and dedicated to his success in the world as they knew it, the hearing world.  They found him a teaching system by which he would learn to read and write standard English, speak it and even understand it when spoken by others.  In his childhood, little in the way of special education was available for the deaf.  What there was, did not meet with much approval from his parents or him as he grew up.

Certainly, every deaf person's experience is unique.  The scarcity of first hand accounts only contributes to stereotype.  American Sign Language (ASL), cornerstone of deaf culture, has its own syntax and grammar, according to those who know, which does not include me.  When I read entries on some of the Facebook deaf groups I have joined, it is difficult for me not to stumble over the errors of case, tense, and noun/verb agreements, no worse than I would make in any language other than English.  I also often read the justifiable retort: “I’m deaf, not stupid.” 

A couple of years ago, I was working inside an apartment I own, remodeling it for the next tenant.  Busy and deep in concentration, I heard a noise I did not recognize.  Eventually, my peripheral vision saw people peering in the window.  At that point, I realized what I had heard was the sound of the doorbell, distorted by my cochlear implant. 

When I answered the door to a group of five, I said, “I apologize.  I did not hear you.  I am deaf.”

Immediately hands began to flutter all at once.  Someone said, “Us deaf, too.”

I thought they were mocking me, and I was very embarrassed.  They were not.  One applied to rent the apartment.  The others were just along to help and support their friend.  I constructed a strobe-light smoke detector for my new tenant.  Like me, she had a cochlear implant.  Not like me, she was born deaf.  She had received the cochlear implant as an adult.  After trying it for a while, she abandoned it, because the sounds were too unpleasant and bothersome.   I do not disagree.

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