I used to feel unique in my otherness. There were so very few others like me as I grew up, that I felt separate from most of the other kids I knew in school and around my neighborhood. I was different, my parents were different, my brothers were different, and we lived in a different world. Our world was a Deaf world and I just happened to be a hearing person in it.
Although I still feel unique, I now realize that there are over twenty million deaf people in the United States alone. Many of these deaf people marry and the children they bear have a better than ninety percent chance of hearing. A good guess is that there are millions of others in my shoes.
When I was about five years old, I realized I was different from many other kids. Not only was I different, but also my parents were very different from other parents. We didn’t look different, nor did we generally act different, but we were different all the same. It became noticeable when we communicated with each other and with others around us. We used sign language.
Up until this time, I really didn’t look around me to see how everyone else was different. We attended a deaf church where the other kids, at least the hearing ones, were a lot like my brothers and I. We socialized with these kids. We went to picnics, parties, and events with my parents and we did these things with their deaf friends. All of us had something in common so I never really seemed to notice we were different from other kids.
I always felt very loved by my parents. There was never a shortage of love in my mind. They never talked down to me, the way many parents talk down to their children. Although my father read the newspaper, we didn’t seem to have a real connection with the outside world. The only contact I ever had was when we ventured out to the store or a rare trip to a restaurant. When we did go to the restaurant, my aunt and uncle would come along and generally paid for the meal. They were deaf as well and the conversation at the restaurant would become quite animated at times, especially when I wanted the biggest burger on the menu and my aunt and uncle thought I was too little to eat it. This happened every time we went to the Big Boy restaurant and I eyeballed the picture of the Big Boy burger. I practically drool to this day with the thought of it. I loved these trips.
It was just before I entered kindergarten that something happened at a restaurant. The adults were having their usual lively sign conversation when I overheard two women who were sitting near us talk. What they talked about would stick in my mind for the rest of my life. Part of their discussion was that they thought it was awful that “people like that” would have children. They went on to say things like “there should be a law” and “what is the world coming to?” I knew they were talking about my parents because they would glance over between comments. It also occurred to me that they thought my brothers and I were deaf as well. It was from this point on that I noticed the difference in my family life.
Although I feel comfortable with myself as a person, I often wonder what made me like I am? Your identity is often based on your family, starting from birth. If this is the case, I’d better start with my parents. They had a lot to do with my birth.
My mother was born deaf in a small town in Wisconsin. She had three siblings, two who were deaf as well. She had the advantage of having her siblings to communicate with as she grew up. Her and her deaf sister never went beyond elementary school in their education. Her deaf brother, being male, continued his education as well as her hearing sister. Upon adulthood, my mother and her deaf sister became helpers (candy stripers?) at a nearby hospital. Her world was the Deaf world and she had very little to do with hearing people.
My father was born on a farm in northern Wisconsin and presumably became deaf from falling out of a high chair as an infant. I say presumably because it was a social stigma to have deaf children born to a family in the early twentieth century. Many families would make up stories to prevent this stigma. My father never went beyond the elementary school level either. He was needed to work and help support his large family. He had many siblings, two whom I know to be deaf, but only had two hearing brothers close to his age. His world was a hearing world in which he could not hear.
My parents met at a square dance for the deaf and married a short time later. My father made his living as a meat packer and my mother stayed home. They made their home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and quickly integrated into the Deaf community in the city. There was much prejudice against deaf people then, but they made their way through life as my two brothers and I were born. It was then that they honed their views on life.
My father was an optimist and he took life’s blows as they came. He often worked two jobs to support the family and did what he had to do to make a life for us. My mother might be described as a pessimist and often appeared bitter at her deafness. Life caused her anxiety and she often turned to substances to help her get through it. Her loneliness as my father worked long hours didn’t help matters and raising three active hearing boys was sometimes difficult.
Childhood in a deaf household can only be described as different, yet normal. We often didn’t have other families to compare with, so life was just that…life. I spent some time researching the childhoods of other children of deaf parents and found many similarities.
Normal family conversation was obviously in sign language, but how did we get our parents attention when they weren’t looking at us? Our voices didn’t and couldn’t call to each other, with the exception of my brothers and I. We would stomp one foot on the floor and my mother and father turned towards the stomper. This is a common method of communication among the deaf. Of course, we never thought what it must have been like for any of our downstairs or to the side neighbors. I imagine it was annoying.
As children, we often had to be the translators to these hearing neighbors for our parents. Since they were also usually our landlords, we had to be careful and respectful with what we said. This is a big load for a child to handle. We also were the go-betweens for many other situations as well, such as; the bank, the grocer, the many bill collectors, our own teachers, doctors, as well as any hearing person who came to our door. This added to our feeling of being different.
We had to act differently between our parents and the hearing people. Often, the hearing people would become impatient and couldn’t understand why we didn’t speak aloud as we talked to our parents. It’s hard for me to explain why talking and signing at the same time is difficult. It’s like trying to read Spanish while speaking aloud in English. I know people can do it, but it’s difficult for most of us, especially children who have already formed a habit with communication. I guess you have to train yourself to do both. I’m too lazy to do that.
When sign language is used, the spoken word is not translated word for word. Many filler words are unnecessary in sign language so, therefore, are not used. When I tell a hearing person that my parents are deaf, I say, “My mother and father are deaf.” When I say the same thing to a deaf person, I say, “Mother father deaf.” This is also how hearing children of deaf parents speak to their parents, thus enforcing the idea of bilingualism. They are two wholly separate ways of talking.
While sign language consists of a series of hand signs for words, body gestures also play a large part in the communication process. If you sign the word for “happy” while looking like your dog just died, it loses its impact and much of its meaning. Body language is important. This is also how a deaf person can tell if someone is sincere, dishonest, or just making fun of him or her. This adds to a certain distrust of hearing people. They can read them. I think many of us hearing children of deaf parents picked up on this ability to read body language. It definitely contributes to our lively animation when we talk. I’m always swinging my hands around when I talk. I’ve even been known to sign in my sleep.
Also, as children, many of us were viewed as having a language deficiency. Many children of deaf parents learned to sound words differently at home than they were meant to be pronounced. I learned to speak through my brothers and my hearing playmates. Of course, I imagine it was a little more difficult for my older brothers.
Who am I? Why am I the way I am? These are questions we often ask ourselves. These are questions of self-identity. Sometimes we just suddenly look in the mirror and begin to wonder, sometimes we’ve always wondered, and sometimes we go through life and never wonder. In any case, it is said that our childhood helps shape who we become, especially how our parents raised us.
A problem with finding self-identity is the inability to share what it was like to have deaf parents with others. Sometimes, when trying to explain my upbringing by deaf parents, prejudice invades the listener’s mind. Many times people have a set view in their minds about what deafness is. Once, I told a story about a car accident when I was a kid, my father was driving, and how scared I had been. My listener only asked, “Deaf people can drive? How can they hear what’s going on around them?” Mind you, this was a fellow teenager who often cranked the volume on his car stereo at full blast. Although my listener wasn’t being hostile, he was being ignorant. Ignorance is a prime factor in prejudice and it hurt just the same.
Another example is the one I gave in my earlier rendition of the restaurant women. They showed me ignorance at a very young age. It used to make me angry when I was young that some of the other children would make fun of my parents. It was usually the children who had seen my parents for the very first time. My close friends came to know my parents as good people, only different. Many of my friends even communicated with my parents as best as they could.
I learned in early adulthood that prejudice is not just limited to the hearing, however. Once you cease to be the cute little child of deaf parents, or in my case, fat-headed little child of deaf parents, some of the deaf community, most notably the people without children, tend to view you as the enemy. Some Deaf avoid hearing people all together and see them only as people who will take advantage of them. Sadly, many of them are taken advantage of. This situation also lends itself to the confusion children of deaf parents feel when they grow up. Where do they belong?
My parents, fortunately, are not like these people. They are still accepting and my feeling of family belonging is still intact. At holiday gatherings though, the hearing go in one room and the Deaf go into another. We do this during the meal and then all gather together for the opening of presents. I would sometimes feel guilty about the separation, but I realize we naturally congregate into our comfort zones. There is nothing bad meant by it. The love is there and the joy is there and that’s all that’s needed.