I don’t know how to write about being deaf. I don’t know how to write about it any more than I know how to write about being a woman or being 33. Being deaf is a physical condition that somehow also exists as a condition of personality. Is personality the right word? I don’t know what I mean to say but I know how I mean. Let’s see if I can describe it to you.
Consider the age-old argument: nature versus nurture. The argument, when looking at siblings, leans favorably towards nature. After all, siblings raised by the same parents in the same way, turn out so different. “This is the shy one.” “That’s the athletic one.” “Oh, she’s the smart one.” Nature accounts for these differences. But one could argue that parents change as they gain wisdom and experience. An older child might not reap the benefits that a younger child does, of a parent that is older and wiser.
So, am I the person I am because I’m deaf or would I be this person regardless? I don’t even think, at 33, that I know myself well enough to answer this question. My early experience with deafness imbued me with a “can-do” attitude. My parents pushed, gently but firmly, so that today I stand before you, a college graduate, the holder of a Master’s degree, a writer, a former teacher, a traveller, a mother. But maybe it was already in my nature to be “can-do,” to be a reader and a writer, a person who seeks out adventure in other countries. Should we blame nurture or nature for my quick temper, my big mouth, my acceptance of my own mediocrity?
There have been many influences along the way. Early speech intervention, a year at a boarding school for deaf children, years of being mainstreamed in public school, a stepmother that is a speech pathologist, a mother that is an audiologist, a father who said “come hell or high water, you’ll go to NYU,” the nurturing that I received by going to a small college within a private university, chance meetings with people who extended to me patience, kindness, and empathy, some of those people becoming my dearest friends. (I well up at the thought.)
All this took place within the context of a hearing world. I can count on one hand the number of deaf friends I have. I belong to no deaf community, capital D or otherwise. When I rejoice, when I lament, when I commiserate, when I give, when I take, I do those things not as a deaf person but as me. To be sure, it becomes apparently rather quickly that I am deaf, if you are paying attention. My eyes will be trained on your face as you speak, maybe making you feel a little uncomfortable. You’ll talk to me when my back is turned and get only silence in return. You might have trouble understanding some of my speech, then we’ll both feel sheepish and embarrassed when you figure it out. I might even muster up the courage to say “I’m deaf. I have no idea what you just said to me,” and then you’ll apologize and repeat what you said, enunciating carefully and kind of loudly. I’ll take my punishment humbly and just smile gratefully, while inwardly rolling my eyes.
When I’m asked to write about being deaf, I hit a wall. What does “being deaf” even mean? I am deaf but deafness is not a behavior, as the word “being” implies. For me, it is a condition. For a lot of other people, it is a culture, a way of life and they could probably answer the question more easily than could I. I can write about how my life is affected by deafness or how my relationships are formed as a result of my deafness but I can’t be deaf. It seems unfair to me, as a person, to be reduced to that one physical characteristic.