I’m never quite sure how to drop it, or when. But I need to figure it out.
By “it,” I mean the question of telling people I meet that I'm deaf. I’m not exactly like them, I can’t do certain things, and specific accommodations need to be made for me, but I also want to be clear about the abilities that I do have and to avoid making the hearing-loss issue intimidating. It’s a quandary that, post-CI, I still struggle with. How to be clear, straightforward, approachable, fair, but yet realistic?
It’s a tricky challenge with no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes, at the outset of a conversation or a relationship, dropping the “d-bomb” simply isn’t necessary – or relevant. When applying for a job or internship position, no way am I going to mention it. Why should I, when it doesn’t at all affect my qualifications or my ability to perform? Starting every introduction email with the disclaimer, “By the way, before you decide how to interact with me in the future, you should know that I am deaf” – that’s not an option. It’s selling myself short. I refuse to let one aspect of my identity define my every interaction. In pursuing my real-world activities, I am a student, a reader and a writer, a hard worker, a participator, et cetera, first. I begin long-distance interactions simply as myself – which of course brings up the interesting question of how my deafness fits into this holistic sense of self-identity. (Messy question; not going there.)
However, when the time for an interview rolls around, or when I find myself about to (gulp) actually meet the individual with whom I’ve been corresponding, I need to decide what to do. In the past, I’ve tried both approaches. I’ve stayed mum about the d-word and showed up hoping that the situation won’t escalate into something unmanageable, and/or that my lipreading skills will be able to save me.
(Sometimes, that’s worked beautifully. Other times, I find myself reeling and backtracking, trying to explain away the minor snags that have suddenly turned into ogres. It depends on the person and the situation, it really does. If I bring up the deafness issue with some people, I look back afterwards and wonder why I made it such a big deal. Why, it really was irrelevant. Other people, however, need to be slammed over the head with it before I feel like I can approach a semblance of my normal ability to function.)
Or, I’ll play my cards straight before I even meet this person face-to-face. Deep breath. Time to let the cat out of the bag. I’m embarrassed every time it happens, for whatever reason. I suppose because I’ve succeeded so far in my life goal of Interacting Normally With Hearing People, and now I’m about to voluntarily set myself apart.
(Interestingly, this approach of prior disclosure is also successful, or not, depending on the person and the situation. Some people, if they’ve been given time to ruminate over “Ohmygoshshe’sdeafIdon’tknowwhattodo,” come to pieces in the actual interaction. They’re more nervous than I am, they overenunciate, they question themselves, and so the entire meeting becomes damage control on my part, trying to reassure said person back to the impression-of-hearing-person-normalcy that they had before. Other people, however, simply appreciate the heads-up. I’ve had several surprising situations arise where I’ll meet someone who unexpectedly knows some sign language or who already has deaf friends or family members – if I hadn’t mentioned my own deafness, I wouldn’t have received the gift, so to speak, of being able to interact on this level.)
The d-bomb is troublesome even in casual interactions. Sometimes I’ll be out and about and meet someone new. He or she is easy to lipread, and so we settle into a comfortable conversation without me ever bringing up my hearing loss at all. I’m enjoying myself when this new hearing companion does something that does not adhere with my version of reality, such as saying “Give me a phone call!” At that moment, of course, I have to break the mold, bring my deafness out of the closet, and say, “Whoa, hold on.” And then, of course, the situation feels awkward because I hadn’t mentioned this gee-probably-rather-important-fact before. Why? It wasn’t necessary. I was comfortable then. Honestly, I forgot.
Or, I’ll indicate to a new friend what I need in a one-on-one interaction, only to see that friend again in a group and realize that he or she really doesn’t get the big picture, doesn’t get that what works in one situation falls apart in another. Then, I’m obliged to speak up and clarify further, but too often it becomes easy to embrace a self-defeatist mindset and let things unfold as they will.
This is a problem: I tend to only mention my deafness when it becomes troublesome. Otherwise, I shove it under the carpet and ignore it. Ignoring it is something I’ve tried to do for a while, and it doesn’t work. Not only is it unfair to me, it’s unfair to the people whom I could construct valuable relationships with, if they only knew what to do. Approaching the hearing world head-on was part of my decision to get a CI, and since then I’ve gotten progressively better at being up-front. (But, but – there are situations where being up-front isn’t necessary! Where I can cope! Where lipreading is fine! Where the CI is amazing! Where I don’t feel the need to let every single person I meet know just how complicated all of this is! Like I said, all of these questions can get tricky.)
There are other questions I’m mulling over, too. For instance, what language should I use? Oftentimes “Hello, my name is Rachel and I’m deaf” doesn’t seem to work. Hearing people don’t know what to do with that word, that entire concept. They’ve often never thought about what it means. I’m as likely to get stares of shock as I am offers of accommodation. One of my deaf friends once advised me to introduce it through subtler means and action-significant words, such as “I lipread” or “I need you to look at me when you talk.” There, is that better? I’ve revealed something important about myself but also given my companion some indication of how he or she should behave. That's more productive and fair, isn't it?
Interestingly, talking about my CI fits into the entire d-bomb dilemma. “So that thing lets you hear?” people will ask me. I hesitate before giving them an answer. I want to explain that hearing isn’t the same as understanding, that it’s a beast of a process, that what I’m capable of now isn’t what I’ll be capable of in six months, or (certainly not!) what I was capable of when I first got switched on. But, for the uninitiated, hearing is a binary: either you can, or you can’t. I don’t want to contribute to misconceptions that, with my CI, I’m able to function one hundred percent normally, but I also don’t want to underemphasize the immense difference it has made in my life. So I sidestep the question a bit. I try to respond to the confused inquiries of “If you have a cochlear implant, then, doesn’t that mean you’re not deaf after all?” I try to address how lipreading and structuring my environment are still very important tools, even though, yes, I technically “can” hear at an almost-normal plane. The concept of balance between two worlds, deaf and hearing, is difficult for many people. And, in a way, the CI has only made it more complicated to explain.
In the end, it’s easy to want to give up. I find that sometimes there’s no way to be consistent about how I present myself and my deafness. But there must be a way to be consistently included, consistently understood, consistently enabled. There must be – just hold on, though, I’m working on it.