Letter to A Hearing Parent

Sometimes I get emails or messages from worried parents with a newly-deaf or hard of hearing child. They want to know how I’ve done with Cued Speech, cochlear implants, sign language, etc. So, I do my best to give a balanced perspective, since I understand how lacking that can be in deaf education.

More than that, their questions often carry an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty, and I don’t blame them at all. It is overwhelming. So, I try to reach down to that core, if only to tell them that it’ll be OK and things will work out. That’s a pretty high promise, but at the same time, it’s not about guarantees– I don’t think anything with kids or other human beings is ever a guarantee. It’s mostly about, hopefully, helping these parents get to a more stable place emotionally. Sometimes, I think people just need to hear “it’ll be OK,” even if it doesn’t seem true at the time.

Eventually, this letter came out. It probably won’t apply to every parent of a d/hh child out there, but it’s more or less what I want to tell many of the parents who come to me.

Dear Parent,

It is OK to be afraid. You got thrown into a world that you know nothing about.

It is OK to grieve. Even if your child never misses her hearing, you likely had to radically recalibrate your expectations, and that in itself is a loss. It’s OK to acknowledge that loss.

It is OK to feel guilty. Chances are you did not do anything to incur cosmic or genetic karma on your kid. These things happen, and we can’t always predict nor prevent them.

There is hope. I have met successful deaf and hard of hearing people from all backgrounds. Doctors, businessmen, lawyers, professors, engineers, tradesmen, scientists, service workers. They used American Sign Language, Signed English, Cued Speech, spoken language. Cochlear implants, hearing aids, nothing at all, or any combination of the above.

Some methods work better for a specific purpose than others. Some kids respond to one approach and not to another. You will need to experiment and find out what works best for your family. No matter what you pick, be consistent, and commit to it. If it doesn’t seem to be working after you’ve given it a chance for at least a few months, drop it and try something else. Don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty for doing so. Trust your gut. Trust your heart.

Your child is unique. Embrace that. Work with it. And chances are you won’t veer too far off course.

Changing Perspectives: A New World

For as long as I can remember, I grew up with the impression that deafness was a disability, and that I was the one who had to change—to work harder than everyone else—in order to “integrate” into the mainstream hearing world. I had to take years of speech therapy, one to three times a week, and go to mainstreamed schools, and wear my implant all the time. I remember having my mom as a transliterator in church and at youth group events. For many years, I just didn’t think much of it.

I mean, it was all I’d known, and the biggest things I had to worry about in middle school were squabbling with the boys I found annoying– which, in retrospect, were all of them. When I turned 13, things started to shift. I kept telling myself I was just a loner and preferred to go my own way, and to some degree, that was true. Over time, though, the feeling of isolation just got worse and worse. It got a little better in high school thanks to Emily, who opened my world just by being this shining example of kindness and grace. More than anyone else, she showed me how to be a friend.

Even so, the friends I’d made in middle school started finding new circles in high school, and while we still hung out, I had no idea where or how to find new ones. More than that, I couldn’t deny my growing identity crisis. On one hand, I was becoming more painfully aware of how my deafness bled into everything, even with people I loved. There was always, always this gap, and I didn’t know how to close it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be shunted into this “deaf box,” where everything I did and became was all about deafness.

Before I entered college, I was skeptical about Deaf Culture, especially since I was hardly the “ideal” Deaf person: I grew up with an emphasis on spoken and auditory communication, I have a cochlear implant, I used Cued Speech rather than American Sign Language, and I saw deafness as more of a nuisance than anything else.

And then I took ASL classes at UWM, and met many Deaf people, and gradually my perspective changed. It wasn’t this cloistered community that I’d expected. People had no problem with the fact that I used a cochlear implant or Cued Speech (most were quite curious about Cued Speech, actually) and could just get by with a smattering of Signed English at first. For the first time since I left the Montessori school in Mount Prospect, I was on equal footing. For once, deafness didn’t factor in communication at all. I didn’t have to work so hard at it, and if I didn’t join in on a conversation, it was of my own volition. I didn’t have to “default” to a passive listening role out of fear of embarrassing myself because I couldn’t follow the entire conversation. I understood everything—or close to it—and chose to not participate. And to be honest, I found the Deaf
Culture’s perspective of deafness– as a variation in the human condition rather than solely a medical deficiency– to be quite redeeming.

I still cue. I still talk. I still use my cochlear implant. I still use American Sign Language (or, really, a Signed English variant, but I try to get as close to pure ASL as I can). I have a pretty even mix of deaf and hearing friends with a wide range of communication styles, but that doesn’t matter; we find a way to make it work, and we learn things from each other. In the end, I decided that I’m Hannah, I’m me, and while deafness and all the issues contained therein are a part of me, they don’t have to be all there is to me. Life’s too short to think about deaf or hearing, ASL or English. There’s a whole world out there, and I wanted to go see it.