Monday, January 17, 2011

Success, Undermined

One thing that frequently bothers me is the uniqueness of my position, not only with receiving a CI at my age in my circumstances, but in doing the things that I do, as a deaf person.

I applied for a job earlier this month, and got a prompt email response praising my resume as well-qualified, with the inevitable line, "Please give me a call at xxx number so we can discuss this further." Oh, jeez. This again. Obviously I hadn't mentioned the whole deaf thing from the start; it was completely irrelevant. But obviously it had to come out now. So, taking a deep breath and feeling vaguely abashed (as I always do in such situations), I fired off a reply explaining that phone calls weren't an option for me, could we meet in person or email, et cetera. The answer I got: "How wonderful that you have gone this far in spite of being deaf." Uhhh. Yeah. Gah. And then a few evasive lines about being uncertain of whether I could manage the job because of my phone incompatability and challenges in receiving verbal feedback. Well, so much for that.

This is just one recent instance (and a pretty mild example, at that) of several things that I keep running up against. The necessity of labeling myself as deaf - which I am, yes, on one hand - even while I feel like I've morphed into some strange organism with head jumbled full of noise. Deaf, but not entirely. And not hearing either. The question of what I will be able to accomplish or do at any time in the future, and the uncertainty that accompanies such a state of flux. The assumptions that hearing people make, that everyone has the same mainstream abilities. The way I myself make these assumptions, that other people can see or run or jump or be athletic or learn quickly or eat an unhindered diet. (This bothers me. I hate assumptions, and hate that I should make them. But, in the end, aren't they necessary for collective groups to function?) Finally, the resentment that a deaf individual with my level of proficiency (in academic accomplishment, in verbal skills, in whatever) should be considered "exceptional." The perception that deafness is some sort of terrible barrier against high achievement.

Don't get me wrong, deafness can be a terrible barrier. No one knows that better than I do. But what most frequently makes it terrible, in essence, isn't the competence of the deaf individual in question - it's simply that the way the mainstream world works is incompatible with what that individual needs to thrive. Language. Accessibility. Early intervention. Visual media. Understanding. A social and therapeutic safety net. That this ideal environment doesn't exist isn't anyone's fault, not entirely. It's a problem that I don't quite know the answer to, but it bothers me constantly. Deaf people (contrary to the old moniker) aren't dumb. But I look around and don't see any of them at Stanford. I doubt there are very many at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, either. I see very few of them in high-functioning, mainstream professions. I literally never see cochlear implants when I'm out and about. I think I'd just about do backflips if I ever glimpsed one. Growing up, I never had a deaf role model - my world was full of hearing people, and I wasn't sure what to do with myself. Many of the deaf peers that I had while growing up currently struggle in school, or hate it, or gape that I can achieve grades and acknowledgements and milestones on par with my hearing peers. In such a world, it's easy for me to forget that other accomplished deaf individuals exist.

This could be cause for me to celebrate and feel smug, but it isn't. I am reminded of how much I want a world where it's simply ordinary for deaf individuals to succeed to a high standard. It's not just that I don't want to be singled out. It's that there is no real cognitive, biological reason why more people with hearing losses shouldn't have the opportunities and experiences that I have had. (Social, political, psychological, and individual trends come into effect instead - now those are the snarky ones.) Why me? Why should I have this, if others don't?

This isn't a post intended to lay out areas in which the framework of deaf life in America could improve - clearly there are many - but, rather, a bit of a meditative outburst. These outbursts happen to me every once in a while, and I think the current one is worthy food for thought. This year I'd like to grapple with such questions a bit more head-on, as well as reach out and find other deaf individuals who have succeeded in their areas of interest, and how, and why. Yeah, deafness can be a big deal - but at the same time it isn't. With the right kind of environment, it really isn't.

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