When I was 5 years old, after many trips to different doctors to find out what was “wrong” with me, my parents and I went to an audiologist. Eventually, we were told that I had a moderate hearing loss and that I needed hearing aids. The audiologist didn’t tell them I was Deaf, hard-of-hearing, hearing impaired, or any identity label at all. At the time, I went to a private school with all Hearing children and was the only one who had hearing aids. My parents asked if I needed any special accommodations at school, and the audiologist informed them that I just needed to sit close to the teacher. We didn’t know why I lost my hearing, and we still don’t, though my parents started noticing when I was around 3 years old that I was beginning to struggle to understand. At school, I was often the subject of teasing, endless questions, and “tests” for how much I could hear by my classmates. Hearing schools are often considered the least restrictive environment (LRE) and the most inclusive for Deaf and hard-of-hearing children, but I didn’t feel included—at least not in the usual sense. I felt “included” in that I had friends and could socialize with them, but I felt like I had to work at it.
By the time I was thirteen years old, I still had yet to meet another Deaf or hard-of-hearing person. I had only Hearing friends. I went to sleepovers, swimming parties, and get-togethers where everyone spoke, and it was noisy. I had plenty of friends I enjoyed, but it took active work on my part to catch everything they said. At that point, I prayed that if I were a good girl, I would be cured. I was embarrassed about missing information, especially when it made me look stupid. I was tired of being asked if I was “retarded” or if I was “like Helen Keller,” and if my hearing aids were connected to my brain. I hid my hearing aids by leaving my hair down at school. My feelings about being “included” at my mainstream school hadn’t changed. No efforts were made to make me feel that my experience was valuable or positive at school, and socializing was still work. Once I was in high school, I began to limit my social circle to friends who I trusted not to belittle me for my hearing aids.
When I was eighteen, I used my turn signal as I was driving to my brother’s place. I couldn’t hear the usual “click, click, click” of the signal so I assumed my hearing aids were malfunctioning. I called the audiologist for an appointment and later found out that it was actually my hearing levels decreasing, and not any fault of my hearing aids that I didn’t hear the turn signal. I went from moderately hard-of-hearing to moderately-severe-to-profoundly deaf, and in my mind, that meant my identity had shifted somehow. I decided to Google “What do Deaf people do,” and found an online message board that talked about a slew of things related to being deaf or hard-of-hearing: rights under the Americans with Disabilities act, interpreters, captioning, and vibrating alarm clocks. I had never heard of any of these things. I snatched up my audiogram and went to my university’s disability services office. I found out I was eligible for captioning services and was referred to a captioning telephone company, as well as classes in sign language at the local school for the Deaf. Now I began feeling like there was another group I needed to be a part of; the Deaf community. Perhaps I would finally feel fully included and connected there.
I began learning American Sign Language (ASL) after I turned 19 and made my first deaf friend. The friend I met was not an ASL user but knew some signing Deaf people. He introduced me to people who were Deaf, and I began meeting many others. I was the happiest I had been for a long time. Finally, I met others who were like me. My non-signing Hearing friends slowly faded into the background as I started meeting more Deaf and Hearing friends who could sign. I maintained my friendships with my non-signing Hearing friends who made an effort to use ASL, or who accepted this new part of me. More often than not, my non-signing Hearing friends were supportive.
At last, I could understand other people conversing with me, without working hard and without needing to rely on my hearing aids! For me, this was the true meaning of being included—not having to feel that being welcomed and connected was hard work. I decided to transfer from my Hearing university to Gallaudet University, the world’s only Deaf university. At Gallaudet, I found friends that were Deaf like me. Even if we shared nothing else in common, we had at least that. Conversation flowed naturally, smoothly, and without fear of embarrassment that I would not understand. There were many others like me there that were new signers, and I had never felt so “normal” in my life. Gallaudet solidified my developing Deaf identity. At the Deaf university, my learning became easier, socialization was natural, and my happiness was inexorable. I was no longer angry, frustrated, or sad for lack of understanding other people. At Gallaudet, I was included, all the time. I went from knowing no Deaf people as a child, and no sign language, to being the graduation speaker when I turned 22. I was preparing to attend graduate school for Deaf education and planned to work in early intervention. After a few months, I moved back home and began working as a substitute teacher at a Deaf school. Each day I saw my students, it occurred to me how much I had missed during my hearing school experience. At the Deaf school, all the staff signed all the time, and students had access all day, every day.
Today, at 27, I realize that being Deaf means being part of a community and a culture that accepts and respects the Deaf identity and Deaf journey. With complete access to the Deaf community and ASL, I found the true meaning of inclusion for myself. In the Deaf community, we celebrate Deaf and hard-of-hearing people as part of the beautiful diversity that can be seen the world over.
Natalie Delgado is a Latinx Deaf ASL user, and English and Spanish speaker born to hearing parents from Ecuador. Delgado is a second-year doctoral student at Lamar University in the Deaf Studies and Deaf Education department. Her research interests include Deaf Latinx, early childhood/early intervention, language acquisition, and identity development. Find her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/