Becoming Deaf

by Teresa Porter

I was born with the ability to hear.

I moved around a lot and landed in Waco around 2002. In the fall of 2003, I met my first Deaf person after he moved into the apartment above mine. One morning, he was trying to start his car, and it just wouldn’t start. After watching for a while, I approached and started asking questions.

At first I thought he was ignoring me, then he looked up and seemed startled by my presence. When he raised his hands and started signing, it was my turn to be startled. He repeated it twice. I slowly shook my head no, then turned and quickly went into my apartment for a pen and notepad. I learned several things that day, including how tiresome it can be to have a conversation with only a pen and paper.

One of the things he told me was, “We need interpreters more than we need mechanics.” Huh. Okay. So I left the Diesel program at TSTC and enrolled in MCC’s Interpreter program.

During the next several months, my eyes were opened to a new world, the Deaf World. I remember the first time I went to Deaf Club. I was overwhelmed, not just because I could barely spell my name in ASL, but by the beauty. So many people, so many hands, so beautiful, so noisy. It’s still hard to put it into words.

I learned the difference between deaf people and Deaf people. I learned about the role of interpreters, the cultural diversity, grammar rules, and the language and its dialects. I learned about the perspective, the pride, and the discrimination they face every day. I finished the program and failed the certification test, but set a goal to save money and try again. Funny thing about goals is, sometimes life happens.

You can’t outrun your genetics. I watched my grandmother slowly lose her hearing as she aged. I remember smirking at her when she said it would happen to me. She would urge me to use earplugs constantly. I laughed it off. I was so cocky. I grew up under the elbow of a mechanic, in a noisy environment using noisy tools, working on noisy engines. It never bothered me, and I could still listen to concertos and pick out a specific instrument and focus on it. My hearing was fine. Or so I thought.

One day I went to a fellow wrench-turner for help diagnosing a noise. He got in the car, I put it in reverse and backed out of the parking space. He got a strange expression on his face. I put it in drive and slowly rolled forward. He insisted I stop the car. He told me he wasn’t going anywhere with me until I changed the wheel bearings. I argued with him a little. I didn’t hear it. We put the car on the lift and he spun the tires. I still didn’t hear it. We disassembled one wheel. The bearing fell apart in my hand. All four wheel bearings were on the verge of locking up. We probably would have died if we had taken the car on the interstate to duplicate the noise.

I scheduled a hearing test, and left the audiologist’s office numb with brochures on hearing aids and hearing loss. I was 30. I lived in denial. I didn’t buy the hearing aids, I didn’t start using earplugs. I didn’t even cover my ears when I stood next to a race car.

For years my work schedule conflicted with Deaf Club, so I lost touch. After graduating from the program, to keep my skills from completely deteriorating, I volunteered at the Heart O’ Texas Speedway as their interpreter. Five years ago, I began having trouble understanding the announcer. Three years ago, I made my confession to the promoter. I can’t understand the announcer at all anymore. I still hear the noise, but it’s just noise. To my surprise, he told me to keep doing it. I can’t call myself an interpreter because that’s not what I do anymore. I’m the announcer for the Deaf.

Five years ago, it became harder to live in denial. I was managing a small repair shop doing everything except turning wrenches, slowly becoming increasingly frustrated with the telephone. I didn’t mind that it rang constantly, but I was really struggling to understand women and anyone with an accent. There were times that I would answer the phone, hear noise and say, “I’m sorry, a little louder and a little slower.” Noise again. “I’m sorry, one more time please?”

If they repeated the exact same phrase the exact same way, I was able to figure out what they were saying. If they changed what they said, I had to ask for more repeats. Eventually they would hang up.

There were days I got so frustrated that I would stop asking for repeats and tell them, “Look, if you found the phone number, you found the email address. Just send me an email.” Within a year I was having trouble understanding men too.

I had to tell the business owner that I could no longer perform that particular function of my job. I started trying to learn to lipread. I lost the ability to listen to the radio. (Oh, how I miss NPR!) I lost the ability to watch television without captions. I began to notice how many videos, livestreams, webinars, conference calls, etc. have no captions. It seems like a new podcast or radio interview pops up daily, sometimes an acquaintance will ask if I heard it. I smile through the small twinge of pain and ask if there’s a transcript available. They look at me like I’m from another planet. Sometimes I contact the radio show host and request a transcript, only to be ignored.

If it’s something really important, I will open one of the speech-to-text apps on my phone and play the video or audio recording. The translations can vary in accuracy, so sometimes I have to replay it multiple times using different apps, then try to piece the transcripts together and try to make sense of it. I think it’s weird to see captions on sign language videos like The Daily Moth, but no captions for WCCC-TV. If it’s important enough to tell hearing people, isn’t it important enough to tell Deaf people too?

Last year I got my first pair of reading glasses. Several months ago I noticed I was struggling to lipread more than I ever had before. I was getting more headaches, my eyes were hurting more, I was more exhausted by the end of the day. I got my eyes checked again, still the same as last year, but I noticed I had more trouble understanding the optometrist.

I hadn’t had a hearing test in a decade, so I made the appointment for the audiologist. I just knew I would end up getting a sales pitch for a hearing aid. I wasn’t expecting to see the words “too profound” and “cochlear implant.”

I played it cool as I left the office, but a few blocks away it hit me hard. Grandma wasn’t this deaf until she was 60. It’s happening too fast. Yeah, well, grandma spent her time in quiet classrooms, not around noisy race cars. Environmental plus genetic equals accelerated deafness.

Waco has a small Deaf population when compared to cities like Austin, so many people are ignorant about the federally protected rights of Deaf people. The Americans with Disabilities Act is more than 30 years old, but many businesses are unaware of their responsibilities. The ADA is a lot more than wheelchair ramps, braille, and service animals. It’s about equal access to communication and information. Federal law says you are required to provide “reasonable accommodations.”

We can negotiate on what those accommodations are, but you can’t exclude me. Expecting me to lipread around a microphone in bad lighting is unreasonable. Expecting me to lipread the back of someone’s head or the side of someone’s face is not only unreasonable, it’s impossible. Expecting me to understand more than half of what you say without an interpreter is unreasonable. Telling me I have to request an interpreter more than two weeks in advance is just ridiculous.

As my world slowly becomes quieter, I find myself more isolated. I’m alone in a crowded room filled with hearing people. Someone tells a joke, they laugh. I smile, but I have no idea what was so funny. I can only read one set of lips at a time, and some lips have no words on them. Lipreading is very difficult, and it’s very visually taxing and tiring.

My speech is still clear, I can still speak without an interpreter. I see the strange looks when I request an interpreter. I’ve even been told, “You’re not deaf.” I say, “Hear the world through my ears for one day and see for yourself.”

I speak to accommodate you. I’m not asking for an interpreter because I can’t hear, but because you don’t sign. You do want me to understand everything you say, right?

This isn’t the path “normal” people take. There is no guide for this transition. I still have a lot to learn and relearn as my hearing continues to fade. I wouldn’t know how to cope with this loss if I didn’t know about the Deaf World. I see every Deaf person as a role model. They are beautiful, strong, and so intelligent. Thanks to the local Deaf community, I know I’m not alone. Once a month, for a few short hours, I don’t have to struggle to lipread. They are my strength, my teachers, my future.

Thanks- not only to the local Deaf community, but also to famous Deaf people like Bernard Bragg, Peter Cook, Marlee Matlin, Ken Glickman, Nyle DiMarco, and so many more, my perspective is changed. This is a gift. I’ve never met a “dumb” Deaf person, but I’ve met plenty of dumb hearing people. I am not losing my hearing, I’m gaining my Deafness. I’m not disabled, I’m differently-abled. I am not “hearing impaired”, they are “Deaf impaired.” The saying is, if you love someone, you show it. Love isn’t blind. Love is DEAF.

Teresa Porter is a native Texan, automotive enthusiast, and novice gardener. In her spare time, she is a freelance writer, researcher, and community activist.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.

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