AJW Smith: “I began to see possibilities, not impossibilities.” The Deaf tribe who gave me pride

Posted on October 18, 2013



“I can no other answer make but thanks, And thanks, and ever thanks.”
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.

I’ve got a big “thank you!” in my heart. I’m going to try and squeeze it out through my fingertips, onto this keyboard, and into the words that follow, like gooey toothpaste.

I want to personally thank the Deaf community. Why? Because their pride in their deafness helped me gain self-respect, optimism and authenticity.

But let me begin by making a confession: I found Deaf pride baffling at first. I couldn’t understand how the Deaf community could celebrate their deafness instead of wanting it removed.

I was always ashamed of my deafness. Why? Because for the whole of my life people laughed, mocked, sniggered, sighed or rolled eyes at my hearing mistakes. Mistakes I would never make if I was born hearing. I knew that if I was hearing like everyone else around me, I could escape those shaming experiences.

Along with the repeated embarrassment, there were the many missed opportunities that would have enriched my life. Missed solely because I could not hear. And I was constantly missing out too on the little things in life, like overhearing juicy gossip or an amusing anecdote.

Essentially, I saw myself as a broken hearing person. What I wanted most of all was my deafness to be fixed. So whenever I read that Deaf people didn’t want to be fixed, it blew the circuits of my mind. It made no sense to me. So I rejected their pride as a delusion spun to cope with the psychological pain of their disability. The pain I lived with. Every. Single. Day.

Until I read a book called ‘Seeing Voices’. This was not written by a Deaf person, but by a hearing psychiatrist called Oliver Sacks. Slowly my ignorance was lifted and I saw the achievements of Deaf people through the ages. Victories won despite overwhelming odds and opposition. I was awestruck. To echo Steve Biko’s slogan “Black is beautiful”; I saw that “Deaf is beautiful”.

Not only did I gain a respect for the Deaf community, I found self-respect. I wasn’t a broken hearing person. I was a beautiful deaf person.

This meant I could face the future with optimism. You see, the little hearing I did have was slowly fading. To me that meant a future of no opportunities along with more and more embarrassing mistakes. No matter how hard I tried, I was always going to feel stupid when I was with hearing people. So I cursed my deafness. I hated who I was.

My strenuous attempts to make a future for myself were being blocked by prejudice and discrimination. It was like being locked inside a bank vault and punching my fist against a huge steel door. I felt trapped by my deafness.

Reading about Deaf pride was an oxyacetylene torch cutting open a new door. I began to see possibilities, not impossibilities. I wasn’t just losing my hearing, I was accumulating new profound insights about myself and the society I live in.

The end of my hearing was not the end of my life. There were alternatives I had never considered, like learning sign language.

Thanks to the Deaf community, I have increased confidence in my future. I’m not saying I’m relishing my hearing loss, as I don’t. I still find it difficult at times. But now I have a quiet optimism that I can survive – more than that – thrive.

Deaf pride has also helped me become more authentic. I believe we all struggle to be true to ourselves under society’s pressure to conform. It could be having to behave in a certain way at work that is false to who we really are. Or hiding our true feelings about an important subject from our friends. Or pretending to be interested in members of the opposite sex. We hide our true selves because we fear ridicule and rejection.

As for me, I pretend to hear. Even with the most powerful, advanced digital hearing aids sitting uncomfortably in both of my ears, I could never hear as well as people around me. Not even close.

The best I could hope for was to make no mistakes for hearing people to pounce on and mock, pouring that acid of shame over me, burning my face and insides. My nerves were stretched tight, and my brain worked overtime, trying to ensure I didn’t say or do anything that revealed my lack of hearing, such as failing to laugh when somebody made a humorous quip.

A successful social interaction for me was to fool others around me that I was hearing them. The best I could hope for was to be a pretend hearing person in a room of real hearing people. Like when Harry met Sally, I could fake it in a noisy restaurant.

But thanks to Deaf pride, I realised that I don’t have to pretend being a hearing person. So if I’m in a group and they decide to go into a darkened cinema to watch a film without subtitles, I won’t pretend that I can follow the film as I did in the past. Now I’m free to walk out in the light. I can just be myself.

“This above all: to thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Read AJW Smith’s first article for us, Longing for Belonging, here: http://limpingchicken.com/2012/02/24/ajw-smith-longing-for-belonging/

AJW Smith has more interests and hobbies than feathers on a limping chicken. He likes to tweet about them as @AJWSmith. Currently his favourite hobby is walking the hills of God’s Own County and relaxing in its beautiful wild landscape.

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