Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What's in a Word?

Semantics. Connotations. Linguistic accuracy. What's in a name, anyway?

As someone who lives with a hearing loss, I've long struggled with how to label myself. Granted, when I was young, it was simple: I was deaf. (Disclaimer: little-d, not big-D. The divide, which occurs over culture and identity, is something that I won't go into too much here. Suffice it to say that I view myself as having always been removed from the Deaf community.) And, as someone who had that distinction clear inside her own mind, I became annoyed with the occasional insistence that hearing people had at calling me "hearing impaired." I always preferred the term "deaf" to that clunky, overly-politically-correct, disability-focused word. To an extent, the term can still make me bristle.

However, since my cochlear implant things have grown even less simple. I've discovered problems with calling myself "deaf." Is it really fair to use that term, when at this point I am hearing at almost a normal-range threshold? (Hearing, mind you, not necessarily understanding.) In a way, saying that I am deaf denies the progress I've made in learning how to hear. Moreover, it embraces a binary that hearing people, all too often, are too quick to embrace. That is, they have a difficult time conceptualizing what it's like to live with a hearing loss: they tend to think that it's all or nothing. Either you can hear, and understand everything, or you can't hear at all. The word "deaf" locks me at the far end of that spectrum - the end of the spectrum that I've spent the last 11 months trying to escape. Granted, without my CI I am literally walking in silence. I am still deaf. But, in the context of living in the world and talking and interacting and - whoo-hoo! - hearing, it hardly seems accurate to describe myself that way. "Deaf" doesn't acknowledge my everyday reality, and it gives other people misconceptions besides.

If I don't personally use "deaf" as a cultural term, and if I don't use it as a descriptive term, then what should I call myself? In the days right after the CI, when my whole life seemed chaotic and new, this question was the least of my troubles. But now, as I settle more into this hearing life and start to take it for granted, I've started feeling more conflicted.

First of all, I refuse to say that I am "hearing impaired." Besides the history that I associate with the term, I feel that it's not entirely accurate. I am hearing so well, and the CI has worked out so positively, that I can't call what I hear "impaired." The sounds entering my brain are there - they're just different from what hearing people hear, and I'm still en route to figuring them out myself.

Moving on. Deaf: feels habitual, feels comfortable, but is off the mark. Hearing: pshaw, no. Hearing-impaired: certainly not. How about "differently hearing"? Sounds awkward, and verges on euphemism. Atypically hearing, alternative hearing, hearing through a processor, hearing more than you think but understanding less than you think, hearing disrupted, hearing-but-interpretatively-challenged, in my own hearing world, en-route-to-alternate-hearing-universe...

In the end, I'm going to throw up my hands and call myself cyborg-hearing! (Kidding.) Or, at least, someone for whom the deconstructing effect of the CI has contributed to an increased resistance of classifications. Even if I still need a word with which to describe myself to all of those typically-hearing people.

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