Darn. I missed a word. Again. An important one, too, and I can’t figure it out from context. Should I tell him? It might make things easier and prevent future misunderstandings. But, in some cases, it may also mean judgment.
“I’m sorry, I don’t hear very well,” I offer with some reluctance. “Can you repeat that?”
He gives a prolonged blink in reply, along with a painfully overenunciated repetition of the sentence. I watch as it dawns on him that I’ve been reading his lips. His eyes flicker to my ears, where the casing and tubes of my hearing aids are visible if you look closely enough.
I’ve experienced that scene hundreds, if not thousands, of times. There are slight variations, of course, but never enough to be a different scene. It has always been awkward.
Then when I arrived at the University, I signed up for American Sign Language courses. I loved them. Not only was it beautifully intuitive to process things visually, but ASL also allowed me to communicate with my uncle, who is deaf.
Now, when I ask someone to repeat something, I don’t hesitate. I still get that prolonged blink, but now I grin as I explain and offer a bit more of my own story.
What’s it like being hard of hearing? Despite the fact that everyone else complains about them, the paper-thin walls of my dorm don’t bother me. I have “umhm”-ed and “ok”-ed my way though entire conversations—not so much in person anymore, but certainly on the telephone. While I’m walking, I stop and sign to people from across the street. I can even talk to some of my friends while my mouth is full without being rude.
If you really want to know what it’s like, ask me sometime. I am fairly certain I can show you better than I can tell you.
—Julianna Smith (Col ’10)
While my classmates watch our lecturer speak, I watch the hands of the woman standing next to him. Her hands flutter in the air; one might mistake her for a player in a long game of charades. But this isn’t a game. She is my assigned interpreter who—through a mixture of hand signs, facial expressions and body movements—translates the lecturer’s words into American Sign Language.
I was born into a world of silence and have had to rely on others to interpret spoken language with visual aids such as gestures and writing. Yet I seldom felt different from hearing children.
In fact, I did not know sound existed at all until I was 6 and received a cochlear implant—a device surgically implanted into the cochlea that allows me to hear some sounds. A cochlear implant is not a cure for deafness; it is still difficult for me to appreciate the subtleties of spoken language, but I can hear my grandfather laughing, my mother calling my name, and the phone ringing when my father calls from work.
While other kids were playing pretend and watching Saturday morning cartoons, I struggled to convert written words into sounds so that I could speak more clearly. People often said they were impressed by my “European accent.”
Nevertheless, the hearing world has never been completely accessible. When I misinterpret a spoken word, people tend to think I don’t understand the ideas being discussed. In crowded environments, my cochlear implant isn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish one voice from another, which makes people think I’m shy. When I mispronounce a word, people assume I’m ineloquent.
Although the University provides me with the support that I need to succeed academically, there are still obstacles. In class, there is a delay between the spoken word and the signs made by my interpreter. Just like when I was a child, when other students are having fun, I’m cracking my textbooks to compensate for the information that I inevitably miss.
Still, I try to focus on my capabilities rather than my challenges. I have a strong work ethic, perseverance and patience. And I’m fascinated by deaf culture. Deaf culture is more than just the shared language of ASL; it also has its own performance arts, literature and social customs and norms distinct from the hearing world.
I have dreamed of becoming a physician since I understood that I was deaf and plan to attend medical school. Being deaf has led me to many unique experiences, so I’ve accepted it as an asset—an essential and valuable part of who I am—rather than a liability.
—Jasmine Saleh (Col ’10)