This is the final part in the series, taken from an article in my files. I still don’t know who the author is, but I hope you have enjoyed this mother’s story about raising her deaf daughter. While this is one person’s experience and viewpoints, I think many of us can identify with much of what is said… and have shared many of the same thoughts and feelings.
Thomas Holcomb, a professor of deaf education at Ohlone College in California, has identified the stages that the deaf person from a hearing family goes through to reach what he calls a “positive bicultural identity”; that is, comfort and competence in both deaf and hearing situations. In his work with deaf students at the college level, Holcomb sees the rage, depression and confusion they experience as they struggle to develop a self-concept that includes acceptance of their own deafness. Because a crucial part of this development is dependent on social interactions, it is Holcomb’s view that these deaf children must be exposed early and often to the deaf community. In fact, the rare students he interviewed who felt that their journey toward a positive bicultural identity was not long and difficult had parents who learned to embrace deaf culture early on, and who made sure their children had access to it.
So, in addition to learning a whole new language in order to talk to my kid, and to doing everything else people do in order to be good enough parents, it seemed that I had one more task: I was supposed to become familiar with an entirely different culture-a culture with which I had had absolutely no experience, and in which, by the way, I sometimes didn’t feel particularly welcome. Give me a break, I thought, even as I read everything I could find by deaf authors, took Bekah to the museum on a Saturday morning it had a program that featured deaf artists, and brought her to my ASL class to meet my teacher. I have no time for this, I thought, as I drove her to a signing Santa Claus in a mall 40 minutes away.
But I did it because I knew that the advice that deaf kids should have deaf role models was right. I believed that Bekah had to know and care about herself as a deaf person-that she had to love herself for who she really was-before she could know and care about anybody else. It wasn’t easy for us to meet deaf adults when Bekah was in elementary school. She was, at that time, in self-contained classrooms for the deaf in the public schools, with all hearing teachers. But in sixth grade, she transferred to a school for the deaf. Most of the students there lived in the dorms during the week, but our home was close enough for Bekah to be a day student. In that environment, where half of the professional staff is deaf, a child never needs to wonder if deaf adults can be competent, productive, happy people.
There’s a history of hurt feelings between deaf and hearing people, and it’s a rare deaf adult who hasn’t been burned by the insensitivity of a hearing person. From the time Bekah was a year and a half old and using her hands to describe her world, people have stared at her and asked us both rude questions. “Is there any hope?” one particularly awful woman asked me at the pool’s edge when Bekah was 7. Bekah was, at that moment, attempting to swim the width of the pool underwater, and for one foolish instant, I thought the woman was referring to that-was there any hope that Bekah would accomplish this challenging task? But when I saw the look of pity on her face as she stared at my daughter, I understood what she had really meant. Yes, I thought, turning my back to her, I’ve got a lot of hope for this kid. For starters, I hope she’ll never be a thoughtless jerk like you.
Not long ago, I sat at a meeting where a deaf dorm counselor spoke about her pain when hearing parents don’t want to discuss their children with her. There are parents, she explained, who ask for the help of a hearing counselor-even one who doesn’t know their child-rather than communicate with her. She spoke about other hearing parents who won’t use a teletypewriter-a small keyboard, known as a TTY, that connects to a phone line and makes it accessible to deaf people-because they say it’s too much trouble to type. This not only sends a hurtful message to the counselor, who is a skilled professional caring for their child, but, perhaps more importantly, it sends a negative message to the child as well: It says we don’t value the person we have working with you, and by extension, we don’t value you. This isn’t a message that any parent wants to give.
I’m aware, too, that hearing parents have had their feelings hurt by deaf adults. One mother told me how a deaf woman explained to the other woman’s little boy how she and he were the same and he and his mom were different. “You and me,” the deaf woman told the toddler, “we’re on the same team.”
Yet, despite this history of conflict, we all care about the kids. And it’s essential, for them, that we learn to cross the great divide. For the first few years after I learned that Bekah was deaf, I had only casual contacts with deaf adults. But one evening in 1989, due to a technical problem, a deaf woman and I got to visit for an hour. I had been invited to be on a panel for an educational cable television program that was examining PL142, the federal law that requires what is called “full inclusion” for disabled children. Like many people involved in deaf education, I question this phrase, which too often means the only choice is mainstreaming the student in the local school with an interpreter. Full inclusion for our children, we argue, means not only that they’re able to know what the teacher is saying, but also that they can talk to their classmates. It means that they can be involved in sports, in social life and in after-school activities. Full inclusion for our kids often means that they be allowed to go to a school for the deaf. So we were there to talk about this topic, but there was a glitch-the technicians needed extra time to set up the cameras and lighting so they wouldn’t be shining bright lights into the eyes of the deaf people as they watched the conversation.
In most instances I wouldn’t be very patient while waiting for a technician to figure out how to set up his lighting, but that evening, as I had my first real conversation with a deaf adult, I was thrilled that it took so long. We talked about our kids, our thoughts about different styles of education, and where she got that great purse. We gossiped about my ASL teacher, and worried about the development of a child we both knew. “Call me and we’ll chat,” Hedy signed when the evening was over, giving me her phone number, and it was to her, the very next day, that I made my first TTY call.
In the decade since that meeting, Hedy has given me guidance about deaf culture and education, and I appreciate that. But what’s much more important to me is that we’ve become friends. I know that the reason professionals in the deaf community encourage hearing parents to expose their children to deaf adults is that the children need role models. But I found out along the way that I needed to see successful deaf adults just as much as my daughter did. Like most hearing people, I had been raised believing that a person without hearing can’t lead a full, satisfying life, and as the mother of a deaf child, I needed to know that was wrong.
When I first became aware of deaf culture, I was surprised by the phrase “the deaf world,” as in the sentence “Yes, he has clear speech, but he’s much more comfortable living in the deaf world.” It sounded like science fiction to me-like some sort of parallel universe. It frightened me to think that my child would live in a different “world” from mine, and I resisted believing that there was such a thing. But a lot has happened to me and to my beliefs over the years, and I know now that there are indeed different worlds. I know, too, that there are bridges between them and that my daughter and I need to figure out how to cross these bridges as often and as gracefully as possible. And I know that sometimes it isn’t possible to do that.
I had lunch recently with five of the mothers from my old support group. One woman, a single mother of one deaf and one hearing daughter, had recently turned 50. Her present to herself was a new car, and we all applauded her. “I got a wonderful music system in it,” she confessed to us-”a CD player.” As she told us this nice news, we watched the tears drip down her face. In any other room, her crying would have been incomprehensible, but not in this group. Each of us had, in her own way, turned off the music long ago, and we know what it means to turn it back on. It means that we will be enjoying something that isn’t available to our children. It means that we are accepting a seat at a table where our children are not included.
And there are tables at which we cannot sit as well. Some of Bekah’s close friends have deaf parents, and recently Bekah was invited on a weekend camping trip that several deaf families were taking together. But the rest of our family wasn’t invited to join the group, and I think that’s appropriate. I look forward to visiting with deaf friends when we drop off our kids at each other’s homes, watch a school basketball game together or, on occasion, share a family dinner, but spending the weekend communicating in ASL would be hard for me, and for my husband and son. So Bekah gets to sit at that table-a table that doesn’t include the rest of us. I’m envious of the ease of communication in deaf families, but I’m very grateful that those tables are there for my daughter.
Bekah did sit at the large table for Thanksgiving dinner last year. She and I arranged the seats so that she’d be near the fluent signers, and we rented a movie so she could excuse herself and go watch it if she felt too bored or left out. She busied herself with serving dessert, she spoke superficially to individual people, and when Bekah and a non-signer wanted more of a conversation they grabbed one of us to interpret. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was the best we could do. At every stage of Bekah’s growth we are forced to re-solve this problem, and we always question what is the best way. But there is something that we don’t doubt: Bekah belongs at that table-and it is our responsibility, and hers, to make sure she’s there.
Recently, I watched my daughter in an animated, humorous discussion with one of her good friends as they ate breakfast and speed-signed exquisite ASL. When I sat down with my coffee and entered into the conversation, the girls slowed down their signing. When I missed a phrase, which was often, Bekah used her voice to interpret for me. The pace changed, the discussion got less natural, the two girls repeated more and checked in with me often to see if I understood.
And yet, despite these problems, I felt this: There was a place for me at her table. It is, as our children become adults, what all parents want.