On the anonymous-confession website postsecret.com the other day, someone wrote, "I'm scared that because I'm minoring in American Sign Language in college my kids will be deaf one day." Immediately, I wanted to find the person who wrote that, shake them up, tell them that deafness is not the end of the world. That I believe it's made me work harder to prove that not only was I as good as everyone else, but I could be better. To prove I could be the best dancer, the best writer, the best basketball player, the best student, the best whatever it was that I wanted to be.
I should clarify. I wasn't born deaf. Deafness is something that came to me shortly before my 18th birthday. For 15 or so years prior to that, I was simply hearing impaired. I wore a beige compact device clipped snugly against my ear, the mold often a clear color, shielded by long hair and extravagant earrings. I've never learned to sign more than the alphabet and a few words, and that was my decision. I chose to be part of the oral world, knowing full well that my role in that world would be a much different one than most.
I don't exist in the realm of true deaf individuals, fingers flashing and lips moving in a mimicry of what sound must look like. But I don't entirely fall easily into the hearing realm either. When my boss pronounces a name I'm unfamiliar with, I must ask her to write it down because certain letters get lost. Instead, I float somewhere in between, where I dictate the rules of how my language both communicates and interprets.
I don't doubt there's some overachievement drizzled through my blood, but I think the disability forces me to push myself even harder to be someone. I don't want to be "the deaf girl." I want to be the girl who gets up at graduation and gives a speech, her slight lisp the only indication that she might be something out of the ordinary. I've never wanted to be the stereotype, something a boss of mine once ascribed to me when I worked at Nordstrom for three summers. She would repeat things over and over, slowly, as though my brain were at fault, and not just the nerves inside my cochlear. I secretly relished all the times she would get flustered and annoyed at my ability to pick up on things quickly, because I was supposed to be the dumb deaf girl.
I'll be honest: there are some things I just can't do. I can't play team sports that involve coordination and collaboration, because I won't ever hear someone call my name. I can't follow in my parents' footsteps and be a lifeguard. I can't go whitewater rafting and actively participate, because my movements won't be in sync with the others. But when there's a "can't," I make a "can." My grand jeté is always going to be more graceful, and I am one heck of a ping-pong player, if I do say so myself.
One of the things I always loved about my friend Dave was that no matter where we were or what we did, he would always make me feel part of it, even when he was teasing me about my "fake deafness." If there was something going on and I couldn't understand, he wouldn't say "Never mind," or brush it off. He'd just enunciate carefully, having learned how to make it easier on me. We could be at a loud concert, and he'd text me instead of trying to scream across the crowd. Or he'd stand on the opposite side of a crowded room, lip- reading and telling me jokes to make me laugh. There was a sense of a secret world that only we shared, which probably made our friendship so strong.
In a way, the hearing, processing, and translating functions of my false ears only serve to speed the efficiency at which my mind works. My mind flows from subject to thought without a single glance, only to return back to the same subject, having traveled to Jupiter and back in the same time it takes to twist off a bottle cap. If I weren't deaf, I might just be...well...conventional. Instead, I get to watch the way words spark off someone's tongue, how their lip rolls give their emotions away before they even say their thoughts. I can play voyeur to an unwitting conversation on the bus or train. I can think more about the words and their meaning, see through the false layers and to the flickering jumps from their vocal chords to the outward world. It may not be something I'd necessarily wish on someone else, but it seems to me I'm doing just fine with it.
We cope. We learn. We live. There are always alternate routes. My deafness doesn't need to be mine.