What it Means to be Deaf: A Latinx Perspective
Published: Jul 13th, 2018
When I was five years old, my parents found out I needed hearing aids. They weren’t told I was deaf, Deaf, hard-of-hearing, hearing impaired, or any other label or form of identity. They were simply told I needed hearing aids, and that I would be able to hear “normally” with them. I was the only one in the entire school, preschool through twelfth grade, who had hearing aids and the only one who was Deaf or hard-of-hearing. I was often teased, questioned, and “tested” for how much I could hear by my peers. Back then, being deaf (though I didn’t identify as such) meant to be different or abnormal.
My parents were saddened by the news that I was not hearing typically, and raced to find doctors and people who could help me. Being that they are from Ecuador, they already experienced cultural differences and were concerned that my languages would struggle—I already spoke English and Spanish, would I continue? They were never told that I was normal or that I could live a normal life. They were only given apologies and reassured that all I needed was to sit in the front by the teacher—nothing else. Not a single mention of the Deaf school, not a whisper about the Deaf community, or even any remarks about American Sign Language. No regard was given to my parents’ concern for Spanish, though it is a central part of our Latinx culture.
When I was older, around thirteen years old, I still had yet to meet another deaf or hard- of-hearing person. I had only hearing friends. I went to sleepovers, swimming parties, and get- togethers where everyone was chattering away and it was noisy. I struggled to understand what people said when they spoke, especially when I had to take my hearing aids off for a pool party or when it was time for bed at a sleepover—but it was really time to tell scary stories in the dark. In fact, I used to pray that if I behaved well enough, if I was good enough, that I would be fixed so that I would no longer be embarrassed when I didn’t understand what someone was saying. I was tired of being asked if I was retarded or if I was “like Helen Keller,” and why I had these huge things in my ears. Being deaf then no longer meant that I was just different, but it began to mean that something was wrong with me. I never wore my hair down in fear that someone would see my hearing aids and call me “retarded”. My parents knew I was being made fun of and they told me to ignore the children who were teasing me or calling me names. If they were never told I was normal though, was I?
When I was seventeen, I started to get angry. I was tired of lipreading teachers and people and going to loud places where I couldn’t understand anything and had to work to maintain a conversation. I was tired of feeling like I could not be a part of parties and the typical teenage experience because it was too hard to hear. I avoided loud, dark places and settings where it was difficult to read lips and match what little I could understand to what I could hear with my hearing aids. I was dating a hearing guy at the time, and whenever we would go to friends’ houses and go out, I started getting angry when I was begged to stay though I didn’t understand anything. I would lash out and storm out because I was tired of working so hard to understand people. I preferred to stay at home when my boyfriend would go to parties, and I would get upset when he tried to make me go. At the time, I just thought I couldn’t get along with the people he was friends with, but truly I just never understood anything they said. Eventually, I started losing more hearing. Being Deaf for me then was being angry with everyone else because I couldn’t understand them, though they could understand me. My parents didn’t know how to help me. I couldn’t put a finger on what was wrong, so how could they?
When I was eighteen, I was taking a turn in my car and hit my turn signal. I couldn’t hear the blinker anymore, so I thought something was wrong with my hearing aids. I called the audiologist for an appointment and later found out that it was actually my hearing loss progressing, and not my hearing aids malfunctioning that prevented me from hearing my blinker. I hopped onto Google and searched, “what do deaf people do” and found an online message board that talked about rights under the Americans with Disabilities act, interpreters, captioning, and vibrating alarm clocks—I had never heard of any of these things. I thought subtitles were for foreign language movies and never knew I could use captions for movies. I had been using my phone as an alarm and constantly missed the weak vibration of it, making me late for school or work. I thought interpreters and sign language were only for Deaf people who did not talk. Now I knew better. I immediately got my audiogram and went to my university’s disability services office. I found out I was eligible for captioning services and was referred to a captioning telephone company, as well as classes in sign language at the local school for the Deaf. I suddenly realized that being Deaf meant I was not alone, not anymore. I had hope. I relayed my newfound information to my parents and they were interested in learning more.
I began learning American Sign Language (ASL) at 19 and met my first deaf friend not long before starting classes. The friend I met was not an ASL user, but he had connections with those who were. I enjoyed having a deaf friend and wanted more. I started meeting people who were Deaf and used sign language. I had never been so thrilled in my entire life. Finally, I met others who were like me. At last, I could understand other people conversing with me, without working hard and without needing to rely on my hearing aids! Being deaf did not mean darkness anymore. It meant Deaf pride, confidence, access, and support. I soon decided to explore the idea of transferring from my hearing university and going to Gallaudet University or Rochester Institute of Technology. I visited both schools, and after some convincing, I decided to transfer to Gallaudet. My parents were supportive, and began learning ASL at home. They checked out library books, rented DVDs, sought ASL resources and classes online, and began looking for Deaf people they could practice with while I was away in Washington, D.C. for college.
At Gallaudet, I found a wide variety of friends. I found friends that were like me, the same age as me, the same interests as me, and so much more, but most importantly, they were Deaf like me. Conversation was never a burden, a hardship, or a tedious task. It flowed naturally, easily, and without fear of embarrassment that I would not understand. There were many others like me there that were new signers, and I had never felt so warmly embraced in my life. I was in my element. Learning became easier, socialization was natural, and my happiness was inevitable. I was no longer angry, frustrated, or sad for lack of understanding other people. Being Deaf meant freedom. My parents sensed this change in my demeanor and they remained fully supportive. Soon, they began taking ASL classes in the community, attending rallies for Deaf children and Deaf rights, going to conferences on Deaf education, and engaging with my new Deaf friends.
Being Deaf now, at 27, means fighting for Deaf and hard-of-hearing children to have the rights and access I did not have growing up. It means supporting the Deaf community in all of our fights for access, but especially in ensuring the future of our Deaf children’s success and happiness. We work together in all that we do and embrace our differences. We all know that being Deaf is more than just our audiograms and hearing devices. Being Deaf now means being part of a community and a culture that accepts and reveres the Deaf identity and Deaf journey. My parents remain a part of the Deaf world as they enter their ASL 5 class, and they continue to join me in my quest to make sure future Deaf children do not have to endure the same grief and uncertainty that I did, and to ensure that other parents are aware of the necessity of access through ASL, the Deaf community, and Deaf culture. They now proudly describe themselves as supporters and allies/accomplices, and they advocate for what we did not know. My parents hope to see other Latinx parents supporting all of their Deaf children’s cultures and languages.
Natalie Delgado-Grace is a Latinx Deaf ASL user, and English and Spanish speaker born to hearing parents from Ecuador. Delgado began her graduate career at Columbia University and later transferred to Lamar, where she received her masters in Deaf Education and where she is currently working on her doctorate. Her research interests include Deaf Latinx, early childhood/early intervention, language acquisition, and identity development. Find her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/ndelgadograce
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