When at the age of three I came down with measles, followed closely by meningitis, I had no idea of the journey I was beginning. At first it seemed I had escaped unscathed, despite a temperature that soared to 106 degrees. I had already learned to talk, and the lisp that appeared afterward, making my Ss and Cs sound like THs or Fs, was, given my age, regarded as simply cute. That it continued into school years, despite all efforts to correct me, was greeted with less enthusiasm.
I loved school. I remember being enthralled with learning and mesmerized by books. The only problem was, I wasn't learning. After my first grade year I could barely read, and only summer tutoring convinced teachers to allow me to enter second grade on schedule. I made it, somehow. Along the way I acquired the first of many labels that would be attached to me throughout life: slow learner.
I don't remember feeling slow. I do remember feeling confused. I was never quite sure what was going on, and at one point in second grade, panicked by feelings of inadequacy; I resorted to cheating on a spelling test by writing the words down on the palm of my hand. The deed was discovered, seven year olds being the open books that they are. But I wasn't punished. Instead I was hustled off to an ear nose and throat doctor, as my teacher by that time suspected that something more than being a slow learner was at work.
She was right. After hours of testing, I had a new label to replace the old one: hard of hearing.
The loss was a classic one. The low tones, which tell us when doors are closing and motors are running, were normal. The high tones were absent or barely discernable. Since these high tones account for the majority of speech sounds, it was a wonder that I was doing as well as I was, and had not been immediately diagnosed following my illness. The slow learner was, to my parent's infinite relief, apparently quite bright.
There were few solutions in those days for such a loss. Hearing aids were rudimentary, amplifying all tones rather than being selective as they are today. There was simply no technological fix for me. Instead I began years of lip reading and speech lessons, was taught to always sit in the front row and make sure that teachers knew to face me at all times. I also learned, somehow, that there was something shameful in being less than normal, that society as a whole, and my family in particular, were most comfortable when the reality of abnormality was papered over with at least an appearance of normalcy.
Taken together the techniques worked-for a while. I sailed through school, finished college and eventually married. But then, so gradually that I almost failed to notice it, the world as I knew it began to fade. I didn't think about it at the time. I told myself I was too busy to watch TV or listen to the radio or music, and ignored my increasing fear and avoidance of both groups and telephones. I just kept struggling, refusing to name the problem, fighting to stay in a world that was becoming increasingly hostile and remote.
I don't remember just what was under discussion between my husband and me the day I acquired my next label. I imagine it concerned my job as an occupational therapist-specializing in physical disabilities-which was becoming increasingly stressful as my hearing faded. I do recall what ended the conversation though. Totally out of patience with my denial he suddenly turned to me, fire in his eyes, and screamed in my face: "You are DEAF!" "NO!" I cried back. "DEAF!" He screamed again. "No!" I repeated as I sank into a crouch; face down on my knees, hands over my ears as if to protect them from hurt. "No! No! No!" And I began to weep for what I knew to be true.
Harsh medicine. Necessary medicine. People ask me how it is possible to deny what is so obviously present. I don't know. I can only tell you that it is, and that there are times when only the bluntest of words can break through and allow one to move forward and begin to deal with reality and reclaim life. In my denial the only person I was fooling was me--and misery was the result--constant juggling to appear normal, total humiliation when trapped by circumstances and fatigue beyond comprehension on a daily basis.
Today I am as deaf as one can become, able to stand beside a running chain saw and hear nothing. With the help of a cochlear implant I can hear noise, but since my ability to distinguish words from that noise is poor, I continue to need lip reading, use a TTY for the phone and require a closed caption decoder for television and video watching.
Still my world is infinitely easier and wider than it was on that long ago day when I was forced to accept the label of deafness. Now when I meet new people, even strangers who momentarily cross my path, I immediately admit to my deafness. The words "I am deaf" trip easily off my tongue. It took years of misery, of hiding from myself, of trying to be what I was not, to get to this place of comfort, and the idea of going back to a world of denying who and what I am, even symbolically, sends shivers up my spine.
And shiver I do at the newest title I have--quite unwillingly--acquired. I am now, in politically correct society, "hearing impaired." I have come to dislike this newest designation with an intensity that surprises even me, for it says nothing, representing a rejection of a perfectly adequate--and, most important--truthful descriptive vocabulary; and having completed a long personal journey replete with labels, I find myself bristling at this assignment to what is in essence a no-man's land. I have no hearing to be impaired. I am deaf. What better word to describe being deaf than DEAF? Why must we pussyfoot around this fact simply to gratify the present fascination with politically correct nomenclature? Why must we paper over harsh, but true, reality? The old labels served us well. Say hard of hearing and it is immediately apparent that hearing is present though not perfect. Say deaf and it is equally apparent that hearing is gone. Say hearing impaired and no information at all, other than that there is a problem of one sort or another, is imparted.
Society may feel that it is doing those of us with poor, or absent, hearing a favor by coming up with terms that seem gentle in comparison to the old descriptive ones. But as one who has struggled to find peace with the condition of deafness, and fears above all else slipping down the slope of denial once more, as one who now treasures the maturity that dealing with adversity has brought to my life, being described as hearing impaired is both grating and vaguely demeaning-a denial of a very real and important part of me.
So often when I use the word deaf to describe myself while talking to hearing people, I see a drawing back in their eyes, a look almost of shock. But deaf is not a swear word. It is not a dirty word. Deaf simply describes one part of me, and to use it is not to insult me. Rather it is a word that keeps both myself, and those around me, grounded; squarely facing the facts of the situation. So when you meet me, when you think of me, please don't call me hearing impaired, call me what I am. Call me what I have fought dearly to accept. Call me deaf.
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