This is Part Three in a continuing series of posts taken from an article written years ago by the hearing mother of a deaf daughter sharing some of her thoughts and experiences; the challenges and the joys. In this part we also get a glimpse of what it means to raise a deaf teenager!
Having a deaf child brings with it many problems that I never would have known to think about: My new set of worries ranged from how Bekah would be aware of a fire alarm to how she would have access to popular culture. I’d never have guessed, for example, the loss I’d feel at not being able to sit on the couch and watch television with my daughter, or the burden of having to sit next to the TV and sign reruns of “Mr. Ed” and “Bewitched.”
So the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, when Bekah was 6 years old, brought us much-needed relief. The ADA’s major emphasis was on accessibility and safety issues, and for us this meant that flashing lights were finally installed in her classroom and in the school bathrooms so the deaf children could know when the fire alarm rang. It meant that Bekah was able to attend a summer science program when she was 10 because the museum, funded by the state, was required to provide a sign language interpreter. It also meant that printed words began showing up on our television screen just about the same time that Bekah was becoming a skilled reader. More programs started offering closed-captioned dialogue, and, under the ADA, after 1993, all televisions were built so the viewer could turn on the captioning without having to buy an external device. And then I experienced another feeling I never would have expected: how wonderful it was, after our television became accessible to her, to do something as normal as limit the amount of time Bekah was allowed to watch it.
Setting limits, in general, was harder for me to do with Bekah than it was for me to do with my son. I was aware of too many horror stories from deaf adults about punishments for misunderstanding, about not being listened to, and about isolation within their own families. So I felt very protective of Bekah, and tended, when she misbehaved, to excuse her by assuming there had been a lack of clear communication. It was always obvious to me that I wanted Bekah’s teachers to have the same high expectations for her that they had for the hearing children, but it took longer for me to understand that I needed to ask the same thing of myself. In the early years, for example, if Bekah could say a word and we could understand it, she could have it. “Juice” brought juice, night or day. “Please” brought anything, and “sorry” excused all. In contrast, my hearing child, for whom speech was not a challenge, had no such powerful tool to get adults to do whatever he wanted. In nearly every family, there are reasons for each child to feel that the others have a better deal, but for us, deafness is always the weight that tips our scales.
Lev has resented the amount of time and energy that has gone into meeting his sister’s needs; Bekah has been envious of the quick, easy, familiar communication we have with her brother. Both have been frustrated, as well, by the effort it takes to communicate with the other one. But they do it. I suppose it’s one of the gifts of family life that we’re put in a situation where we can become intimate with people whom we might not otherwise choose to know. Like other siblings with enormous differences, my kids have figured out how to connect. And like other parents of kids who are becoming independent, I’ve had to figure out how to let go.
This year, Lev left home to go to college and Bekah didn’t want to join her father and me when we went to Michigan to visit him-she wanted, she told us, to make the trip another weekend, by herself. Bekah had flown alone before, but she had always been brought to the plane by an adult in one city and greeted by another adult in the other city. I didn’t like the idea that this time she’d have to arrive alone at an unfamiliar airport and then find the van that would take her to a campus she had never seen. At 14, Bekah was confident that she could do it, but I really wanted to say no, not yet, let’s wait another year. Let’s wait several. As the four of us sat at the dinner table talking about it when Lev was home on vacation, I quizzed Bekah on how she’d get from the plane to the university. She asked her brother to describe where she would find the van, and then to explain where she should be let off.
“Okay,” she signed, after she had gotten all the information, “then I’ll write a note to the van driver, and it’ll say, ‘Hi, take me to the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor, please.'” She showed me the imaginary note on her palm and raised her eyebrows in that “so what’s your problem?” expression. I took a breath, looked across the table at my husband for agreement, and put down my fork. “Sounds okay to me,” I signed.
We’ve been having a lot of talks like this lately-about Bekah’s changing freedoms, privileges and responsibilities. Like most parents, I’m talking about the responsibilities, and like most kids, she’s talking about the privileges. We had an argument not long ago because Bekah thought that I was being too critical of her-she’s been very social this year, and I’d been telling her that she wasn’t being responsible enough about her schoolwork. After weeks of snapping at each other, we finally both erupted and spent an hour angry and hurt, yelling and signing, trying to explain our positions. In other words, we had a fight, like most parents have with most 14-year-olds. The only difference was that, in addition to checking in to make sure that the other person understood our position and appreciated our feelings, we also had to check in to make sure the other one understood our language. When Bekah used an ASL expression that I had never seen, I made her explain it in signed English or by voice. When I yelled in frustration and dropped my signs, she made me repeat my point. Parent-child battles are hard, and when I went to bed that night I felt exhausted. But I felt something else too: I felt so grateful for the normality of what we were doing. We were a mom and a teenager working it out.