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Surviving [being] Deaf from Hearing

disclaimers and intentions: 

My experiences of being DoH [Deaf from hearing] are embedded in my privileges of being white, upper-middle-class, sighted, abled, literate, having one parent who signed, and speaking/residual capabilities/“hearing access.” It would be irresponsible for me to name my experiences of pain and struggle without also naming the privileges that shaped those experiences, too.  

There may be some DoH who have happy, healthy, functional, accessible relationships with their family of origin, despite them not signing, and with other non-signing hearing people. If this is you, that’s great! I’m glad for you. Also please consider that that is your experience, and what this post shares is my own and potentially many others’ as well. The expression of this truth does not have to be a threat to your own. Both can exist simultaneously. 

I do not consider CODAs to be part of the group that I name as “hearing people.” 

Most of what I share is nothing new- so many of us have brought forward these experiences and truths throughout our time on Earth. Given this context, it will not be my goal to presume that I am bringing novel ideas to the table- rather, I am adding to the collection.

Humans suffer, and there are multiple truths in suffering. One persun’s* suffering causes another persun’s suffering- what we know as the cycle of violence. I think cycles of violence take on different forms- spiritual, psychic, psychological, corporeal, and so on. Systemic oppressions flow down easily to our interpersonal relations, stretching across the generations. I am keenly interested in interrupting as many of these cycles as I can in my lifetime and those to come after mine. 


 

Deaf from hearing, hearing-family Deaf, only-Deaf. We always see that statistic, that 90-95% of us come from hearing families, most of whom meet a Deaf being for the first time through their child. 

You’d think with this reality, that we’d have more awareness and opportunities in pinpointing just how that impacts us in profound ways throughout our lifespans, from confused lonesome days in early childhood, the lashing-out agony of adolescence, the disconnected haziness of early adulthood, the wayward meandering paths of mid-life, or the rapid isolation of the twilight years. But I don’t really think we spend enough time getting into this- maybe it’s because it’s too painful, or our hearing families would lord it over our heads (we did so much for you! how could you), or we’d inadvertently welcome the troops of parents and institutions endorsing oralism to invade our processes of becoming/self-actualization, or maybe it’s simply because we do not have access to care networks that enable us to work through all this pain. Maybe it’s some of these or all of these at the same time. 

Though suffering is found among us all- in an astonishing array of types and degrees- I believe we suffer because we come from hearing families, and this suffering looks specific kinds of ways that far too often go overlooked within our community. Perhaps one context is that we have our focus set on proving our suffering to outer forces- hearing people and hearing-world- without turning around and recognizing what needs to be addressed among our own. With that, what is hearing-family suffering? How do we suffer with coming from hearing families? And what would it look like if we started, on a community level (read: not leaving it to academia to produce dry journal articles with main points lost in dense, formulaic writing) identifying and naming the patterns that emerge in coming from this background? What if identifying and naming the patterns led to greater self-awareness that interrupted several persistent cycles that take place in our community? 

 

Dominance

I like to say that my Deaf age is 12. Way different from my actual, physical age. (What’s your Deaf age?) This is so because I became self-actualized – like for real, for real, no “trying it out,” then speedily backing out and zipping back to the twisted, hearing-dominant reality that I was codependent with for so long- as a Deaf persun at age 23. The reason? Astonishing Deaf self-hate. 

Growing up was a really weird mix of being groomed to hate Deaf people, and ultimately, myself. I think that among families who hold the privileges I do, there is a formula that guides how our lives are shaped: 

 

White Supremacy + Bodily Normalcy + Audism/Phonocentrism/Oralism + Capitalism 

Many folx have written and published on how the ideologies and practices of the above, and how they are all interrelated. The compact version: white supremacy centers the white body, its features, its looks, in tandem to an abled body that hears, speaks, sees, walks, has all limbs, regulates emotions according to social norms/expectations, processes and outputs information speedily and effectively in order to participate in a for-profit economic system that encourages trampling over many for individual success. 

[Note: I often think this is why we see a ton of the “poster children” for oralism and CIs [cochlear impants] coming from affluent white families, and how these organizations and institutions market oralism and CIs to families who don’t fit that mold, very much psychologically playing on social ideals for their own industrial profit. We can’t really dissect the CI/oralism industrial complex without also centering race and capitalism as well as bodily normalcy and audism-phonocentrism-oralism. It is all a part of an exacting, intentional web of powers/dominance. More on that another time.]

I view systems of power as the structures that trickle down to our internal lives, carried out by those around us, and eventually, ourselves. For example, the formula above underlies much of how the system of education is set up. The normalization, the social stratifications, the meritocracy. The fact that “progress” in Deaf education was attached to individually “mainstreaming” Deaf children with hearing children- solo-mainstreaming- causing deep fractures among the Deaf community that are still felt and unmended today, including the dwindling state of Deaf schools. This attack on Deaf schools has very much impacted the Deaf nexus [the Deaf nexus is what I call the sense of interconnectedness through other Deaf beings, a way of combating social and internal isolation- throughout history and especially now, the Deaf nexus is fundamental to our group survival], interrupting our potential to be at a site of cultural and linguistic transmission, and to grow into adulthood with a strong sense of being interconnected with many others. Instead, we were isolated away from Deaf children and adults and the costs were high. And so, so, so tragically- this systemic tearing-apart is not recognized for what it truly is, not among policy-makers, school districts, “specialists,” teachers, parents, and even ourselves.  

The normalization agenda is strong and is so deeply attached to other systems of power. So imagine what white middle-class (or above) hearing families encouraged among their mainstreamed Deaf children, particularly with solo-mainstreamed kids like myself (and so many others). Over time- through my own personal processing and community observations- I’ve come to realize that there is absolutely such a thing as Special Snowflake Mainstreamed Kid Syndrome. Yes. In this context, stoked by the multiple systems of power and the people who internalized and carried them out, mainstreamed Deaf kids/teens likely acquired tremendous internalized audism -or dominance- and used such tools to distance and elevate themselves from/above other Deaf people. The more residual hearing we had (and could utilize), the better. The closer to normative speaking we could get, our overall human value increased. We were taught that “Deaf stupid that “mainstream so much better than Deaf schools/mainstream ed so much better, Deaf schools only good for social” and we began to believe it. We prided ourselves on our clearer (??) speaking voices and our englishized signing, or “PSE” (not even a real thing). We derided ASL-fluent Deaf people, often who are from Deaf families and Deaf schools. We believed our value as Deaf people was contingent on the fact that we had excellent English (once again, “so much better than Deaf school kids”). All these mistruths were planted by hearing people and probably Deaf adults who internalized those violent concepts as well. Then all along the way, we were distanced further and further from the Deaf nexus, at the hands of adults and professionals, and eventually, ourselves. Everything we did to other Deaf kids and adults was a reflection of how much we hated being Deaf ourselves, and our harmful attempt to distance ourselves from our own bodily reality. We were children, yes. We didn’t have a choice, yes. It’s not our fault, yes. Ultimately, the reality is, as young/adults we have all this shit to work through and cleanse ourselves of. But how many of us do that? 

Special Snowflake Mainstreamed Kid Syndrome is built upon systems of power/dominance which creates and feeds Deaf self-hate, which goes on to projected onto the most vulnerable and minoritized Deaf community members. What it’s also built around is total co-dependency on hearing people and hearingness. We are nothing without evidence of our relationship and access to hearing people and institutions- these are measures of our “success,” how we “overcame” being Deaf. So while we internalized tons of dominance that we metered out through our thinking and behavior of other Deaf people, we also were greatly suffering by having hearing people and institutions dictate so much of our personhood. Think about it: we became dependent on people who we don’t even have full access to, whose sensorial experiences of hearing were not of our own sensorial experiences of not hearing. Because we had been systemically and personally disconnected from the Deaf nexus, we had no choice but to be codependent on hearing people and hearingness. And this disconnect often causes us to be disconnected from ourselves, a scattered nature that we try time and time to corral and mend, not understanding that we need to reconnect with each other. 

 

Victimhood

So many of us can provide exhaustive lists of the fuckeries that came with having hearing families and being mainstreamed. So many! We deserve to name the ways we have been impacted. Nevermind the fact that we will still be called dated terms like “Deaf militants” and -manipulatively- be blamed by hearing people who are new parents to Deaf babies/kids for why they didn’t “choose the Deaf community.” I believe we have a responsibility to name it all so that the next generation (because the vast majority of their parents are still not going to listen to us) can realize that they are not alone- and more importantly- that we’ll be waiting for them. 

I’d like to share a few of the ways being DoH and being solo-mainstreamed impacted me: 

Codependency on hearing people 

With how our system is set up, Deaf bodies warrant constant hearing-intervention, beginning with the doctor + the audiologist. Our bodies are subject to scrutiny, measurement, and the concept of “fixing.” And as mentioned before, the way we are educated- read: how we spend the majority of our upbringing- is derived from such practices. We begin and continue on with being at the will of hearing people. For those of us who grew up with constant interventions from hearing people, we often come to believe, often unconsciously, that hearing people’s individual and social expectations and measurements of us are how we should live our lives. Without these narrow rubrics, we wouldn’t know our inherent value of ourselves the way we naturally are. 

I had many instances of approaching entry into the Deaf community growing up, but would often stray away, opting to try (and fail miserably) at “passing” somehow among hearing people. [I really could not pass, but I amazingly convinced myself I could for 22 years. That level of self-deception and -distancing would be impressive if it did not cause so much traumatizing disconnectedness.] But, the pursuit of “passing” was never rooted in me, myself- it was always locked into the desire for hearingness, embodying it and receiving approval from it. When I let myself free-fall into my Deaf enculturation after being physically Deaf** for 22 of my 23 years of life, it still took me around another decade to recognize the hooks of hearingness in my psyche and to dislodge them. I began to let myself go deeper into understanding myself and my life’s trajectory as a Deaf persun, a sensorially diverse body, I let myself listen more keenly to those who were equipped since birth in navigating a hearing-dominant world without throwing violent lines at them, such as “you’re from a Deaf bubble.” I began to understand that we will not get anywhere as a marginalized group in search of access and rights as long as we allow hearing people to be at the helm of such directions. I allowed myself to be cautious with how and to what degree hearing people are in my life. I let myself to do all of these processes in conscious resistance towards the swell of hearingness that suffocated me for most of my life. And for awhile, I wondered if all these feelings and practices fell into the realm of separatism… but now I believe this is boundary work, boundarying with hearing people- which could be temporary phases in our lives, or actions we will do here on out. Do we know that we have the choice to do this? 

Social-emotional delays

My social-emotional awkwardness approaches epicness. Most of my childhood/pre-/teen memories come with body-hunching moments of cringing. Okay, and also many moments of adulthood. I do believe this comes at the expense of my not having consistent, accessible social experiences with Deaf peers. Had I grown up with other Deaf children, with full language access, so many things would be different. I remember my first day sub teaching at a Deaf school – this was my first cultural immersion experience at age 23- and walking out during the elementary kids’ recess time and realizing for the first time in my life- holy shit. Look at all these kids signing and playing and fighting and making up and playing together. What does that even feel like? How sacred is this? How sacred are Deaf schools? All these opportunities to exchange information, to practice conflict and resolution, to experience full ranges of emotions with one another, to know that you aren’t really ever alone? (Of course, this isn’t to say that the fact that Deaf kids are all together means everything is just great. It means that the potential is there for all of us to be great, and I believe we can get there together, once we individually and collectively work on our shit.) 

I’ve had to learn many social skills embarrassingly late (meaning like as recent as a few months ago- ok, maybe even like, last month). This is because the feat of my intelligence, literacy, and normalization took center stage before my social/emotional opportunities and eventual wellness. When in reality, we are social creatures who need each other, particularly in informing each other how we can survive this world interconnectedly. This is the impact of the disconnect from the Deaf nexus. 

Anxiety 

I believe that growing up DoH in the context of little-to-no sign language access causes constant activation of flight/fight/fawn modes that wreak havoc on our nervous systems/brains. Earlier this year, I made this connection to the anxiety I’ve been experiencing, which seemed to increase year by year. It may seem obvious to some, but yes- of course I would constantly be on guard [fight] for something unpredictable to happen, constantly scanning my environment for what my brain translated as a landscape of threats. This habit found its way to my general approach to life, nicely creating a Generalized Anxiety Disorder scenario. My nervous system has been run ragged after all these years! And this absolutely influences our ability to emotionally regulate. 

My mother is the only one who signs in my family-of-origin.  I remember from a young age, furtively and deeply freaking out any time she left a room or social situation. (This reaction still happens to this day, though I am learning to not gaf.) The idea of having to converse with someone who I may or may not understand in the spoken modality gripped my whole core with fear and anxiety. Recall my desire to hearing-pass [fawn]- this made up a persistent anxiety/tension of being “outed” as not understanding a speaking hearing persun, even if I was biologically related to them. 

In my own home, I didn’t have access to my parents’ conversations or their conversations with my older brother- I just heard constant nonsensical murmurations that I learned to accept for years before I realized this droning sound flips a rage-switch in me. This droning sound reminds me of the basis of my information anxiety, which also could be considered access anxiety***. Knowing on some level that I was losing the luxury of incidental learning through casual listening, this rage-switch was dormant for most of my life, surfacing as a borderline obsession to gain access to different forms of knowledge (and having literacy privilege in being able to do so). 

As I entered my 30s, I realized that my Hearing People Anxiety -HPA- had reached astronomical levels. I didn’t- don’t- want to be around them [flight]. During visits to the doctor’s office, my blood pressure will soar- between having to contend with medical professionals and subpar interpreters, I am utterly miserable and stressed out. I leave it to my partner, who’s Deaf of Deaf and does not speak or hear, to interact with hearing people- even though we usually imagine that people of my background, being so keenly socialized in hearing-world, would be the one to interact with hearing people at ease, but nope! Eldery family member? Little hearing kid at the playground playing with my kid? [I have never been able to understand hearing eldery folks and little kids.] Grocery cashier? Host at a restaurant? Someone asking for directions? Well-meaning neighbor? Please keep them away from me, I’m dissembling into an awkward, avoidant mess! (I am working on this, but also honoring my process of hearing people-boundarying.)

Rage

Of course we’re angry. 

Hyper-victimization

Our victimhood is real. A ton of unfair shit went down. For those of us who get to a place of meta-awareness about all of what we’ve had to survive and now have to contend with as adults, it is often too staggering and it in no way helps that we don’t have publicized models of how to survive healing from such wounds. We don’t know what the way out looks like. Do we then stay in those deep wells of victimhood, making a home in those dank corners, scooping out sludge to throw onto others when we are reminded of our wounds? 

I say yes. 

 

Lashing Out

When I entered the Deaf community by way of working at a Deaf school, really, I was no one. People didn’t know who the hell I was. I didn’t like it. I expected – wanted– to be welcomed with wide open arms, “you’re finally here!! Ahh, so glad! Let us show you all the things!” Especially with having walked along the margins for so long. And so when we are ready to bust on the scene, many of us have this (unfair) expectation, which is often rooted in some very impressive measures of entitlement, usually informed by the social privileges named earlier. After all, I was a special snowflake [-MKS]. 

My absence from the Deaf nexus led the community to question me, and naturally so. The questioning became more intense because of the way I signed- an englishized mess, while not my fault, but still indicative of my toxic cord with hearingness. This is the reality of it. Despite my nascent hyper-victimization, I thankfully had some measure of awareness that I had to humble myself and prove myself as an “outsider,” especially with all that I internalized. Maybe my having at least some awareness about outsider/insider dynamics of marginalized cultures was a big help? It very well may have been, though to a point. 

While working at the Deaf school, I noticed that people connected to one another with such ease, even those who weren’t alumni of the school. During the Deaf Film Festival that took place on school grounds in 2009, following a preview of a promo film for Gallaudet, I saw it- a main strand among this web was Gallaudet itself. Some months later, I applied and got accepted into the Ed.S program, and I was off to “become more Deaf” (my words). A year later, I was on university grounds and raging about how hearing-dominant the “one liberal arts college for the Deaf” was. The more awareness about hearing people fuckery, the more I began to rage. But I couldn’t get to the root source of my rage. Because of my muddled internal state, things started to change. Instead of keeping my focus on hearing-dominance, I turned and became highly- destructively- critical of the community. I pointedly bashed “Deaf of Deaf” from “elite Deaf schools,” decrying their “networks.” The anger that guided these responses were rooted in pure envy and resentment, given my unaddressed pain and trauma from hearing people. And though I had close relationships with those from such backgrounds, I demanded that we had long, repeating conversations where I wanted to name the injustices of how we came from different backgrounds. (But why did I hold Deaf of Deaf responsible for my own pain? They were and are not the direct actors of causing all of that for me, for us. This is an important distinction for us all to make, and to shift our focus back on hearing dominance.) Some obliged with such conversations but with others, bridges were burned that have still yet to be rebuilt. I also took to social media to air my grievances, with more bridges burning away. Oddly, my rage and hyper-victimization carried me through an entire graduate program in Deaf Cultural Studies, and in the years after I graduated, I found myself repeatedly regressing into hearing codependency. Mess. 

In retrospect, I can name the dynamics at play during that time. The auto-plane of myself is of white and socioeconomic privileges that converge with my bimodal (speaking + text)  English language access privileges. This is true. Also true is multi-pronged suffering from hearing-dominance. What is also further true is how I irresponsibly misdirected my personal pain to subjugate and silence Deaf people who are from Deaf families, native sign language users, “big” Deaf school alumni, and so on. (And this still happened despite my preliminary humility upon entering the community! Imagine those who did not start from a place of humility and great effort to recognize how they had been imprinted by hearing dominance, and their own paths of misguided retaliation.) I believed myself as entitled to showcase my anger towards other white, middle-class Deaf of Deaf. And my own white, middle-class and other privileges structured my entitlement in how freely and recklessly I expressed my anger- and there are few situations more dangerous than a persun with abundant privileges acting from a place of angry hyper-victimization without awareness of how their privileges shape how they take up space and treat others.

At that time, my increasing hyper-victimization had me recall several memories of white Deaf folx from such backgrounds being at most “cool” with me rather than warm and welcoming as [false] “proof” of “Deaf of Deaf privilege” and “elitism,” and called their behavior exclusionary. Those select few then became responsible for representing Deaf of Deaf people as a whole in my mind, and I portrayed them all in a negative light. After all, they didn’t give me what I believed I was afforded! [SSMKS.] I was haphazard in naming “Deaf of Deaf privilege,” despite the reality that BIPOC Deaf of Deaf or grassroot Deaf of Deaf have starkly different experiences than a select number of multi-generational upper/middle-class white Deaf families. I viewed them as the enemy rather than cultivators of the Deaf nexus, people who I could be in both personal and community-oriented relationship with. This is not to say that there aren’t any assholes in the whole Deaf community, but rather that my insistence on my victimhood and emphasizing the differences between myself and others in the community became the basis of destructive, projected trauma. This is what hyper-victimization brings, the falsehood that we are righteous with being irresponsible with our pain. And I/we do all of this to members of our community than gathering our valid pain and rage and directing it towards the systems that harmed us. 

And the thing is, I am seeing the younger generation with privileges like mine engaging in such behaviors. Entitlement. Audiences demanded (and gotten) for trauma theater. Individual negative experiences becoming the responsibility of entire groups in our community. Claiming that they’re viewed as “not Deaf enough” without any personal accountability for embodying byproducts of hearing dominance. This is a cycle that has gone on and on in our community, and I’d like us to begin the process of undoing and repairing. 

 

Repairing

After years and years of existing within and living from my victimhood, and weathering the natural consequences that came with many, many burned bridges and connections, somehow the tides began to turn, questions arising within me such as

what if this isn’t the complete story? 

what if this is one part of many? 

what if I have to compel myself to step outside of myself, to be able to perceive all the parts? what if stepping outside of myself doesn’t mean I’ll lose myself, slipping out of my own grip and tumbling down into a terrifying abyss? 

what if I become more whole by pausing myself and allowing myself to receive all the other parts?  

I am figuring out how to survive [being] Deaf from hearing like all of us. I am still in the midst of this chapter, going through the woods, valleys, oceans, of this stage. Still, here are several steps that helped me move away from projected pain and wrecking destruction on the Deaf community:

Confronting trauma and pain in the context of normalized, daily audism in my past hearing-dominant life. This was and is not easy, given that it involves going back and remembering specific memories and bringing them out of victimhood and into a broader scope of understanding that leaves room for both my suffering and my behaviors of dominance. 

Identifying my codependence on hearing people and hearingness, and enacting boundarying work with hearing people in a spirit of self-protection and -nurturance rather than vindictiveness.  Boundarying is saving me and my relationships within the community. Maybe someday I will be able to have deeper relationships with hearing people. For now, my community is coming first. 

Ego work. Identifying the urge to fly down into that deep well of victimhood, and stopping myself in my tracks. Accepting that I had been burning bridges in the community because of projecting my pain. Integrating a practice of amending and repairing -with consent- when possible. 

Inner child work. Learning to go back to 5-year old, 12-year old, 17-year old, 24-year old, 30-year old selves, and to hold her-them with love and care and radical acceptance. I am you are whole. And to allow myself to sense others’ wounded inner children and to expand myself to hold space in recognition of their own wounds. We are together and whole

Leaning into gratitude for being Deaf – that being Deaf is allowing me to undo several cycles of harm, a process I likely wouldn’t embark on if I was still hearing- and re-creating my own place in the Deaf nexus

What do we do about how many are participating in destructive cycles that threaten to ruin us? More of us are realizing the different forms in how we can apply transformative justice to our respective communities. The essence of transformative justice is to identify the root causes of the harm that happened to me, and also to locate myself in the cycle of how harm done to me brings about harm I do to others. I offer that this absolutely requires us to step outside of our -once again, totally valid- victimhood and allow ourselves to reconnect to the nexus. Reconnecting after chunks of our life have been spent disconnected from ourselves and each other is turbulent and difficult, but it’s the better way out of that deep well of victimhood. Perhaps we can start recognizing these factors, maybe going as far as to name those elements. Maybe we can go further, having difficult conversations with one another, creating opportunities for people to be recognized, validated, and then asked to do better, to be more responsible, to shift our ways of relating to each other to be a part of a care-network that lays the foundation for a healthier, thriving Deaf nexus. 

I think: we are each other’s way out. And together, we find the way into somewhere else. 

 

 


* I first saw “persun” many years ago online used by Angel Arellano, as a way to decenter the [white cishetero]patriarchy. 

** I do not subscribe to the D/d framework. 1) A hearing white dude invented this shit. 2) Deaf people are marginalized beings, period- despite any self-perception of degreed enculturations. I use capitalization to emphasize this reality. 3) At risk of coming off as _________ [fill in the blank as you please]  those who assert “d” may benefit from deeply reflecting on many of the points brought in this piece. 

*** I first saw this term from Rossana Reis, on Facebook, some years ago. 

 

 

ASL version: 

For information access to our community, a condensed ASL version is provided. I aim to create ample opportunities for elaboration in ASL online and offline. 

Video setting: Elena, a white genderqueer persun (they/them) with short dark and grey hair is wearing a purple sweater. They are sitting indoors, with a desk and a plant stand that holds a green/red/white plant (triostar stromanthe) in the background. On the desk is a bookstand that features the Tarot card of the King of Cups (from the Smith-Waite deck), with the remaining tarot cards in a stack on top of a book copy of Emergent Strategy

3 Comments

  1. ReeseHelene Kaur ReeseHelene Kaur

    I am crying and rereading. Thank you for this. It stays with me long after I read it.

  2. Wow! What an incredible article! I am s hearing parent with a six year old Hoh/ deaf daughter. Our mainstream experience has been awful. Everything you say is so true about it all! Thank you for writing.

  3. Michele Westfall Michele Westfall

    It warms me to see your journey, because I remember our online interactions on Deaf Echo and Facebook from several years ago. 🙂
    Love your article, and am excited to see where you’re going with this subject!

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