We all have memories from our childhood of when we realized for the first time that either we were different from others, or that others were different from us. One that stands out vividly in my mind was the year that I gave my sister a CD for her birthday. I was young, about nine years old, and my mom let me sign up for an offer through Columbia House where you could get ten CDs for a penny (and as my mother later realized, explained in the teeny-tiny fine print, she would be committed to a lifetime of CD purchases). I picked out a CD called Now That’s What I Call Dance! and I decided to wrap it up for my sister’s birthday. She was turning 22 that year, and I really wanted to give her a present that I picked out on my own. I remember being so excited to give it to her and wrapping it carefully. After we sang “Happy Birthday” to her, I insisted that she open the pink one (from ME!) first. She slid her nail under the side of the wrapping and pried it loose to expose the jewel case of what I was sure would be her very favorite gift that year. Instead of a big smile and fist pumping, her reaction was...tears! How could this be? Did she already have the CD? Did she decide sometime in the last 17 hours that she didn’t like dance music anymore and had failed to enlighten me? What was going on? After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably more like 30 seconds, she said, “I LOVE THIS!” and smiled brightly. I was beyond confused, so I had to ask, “Then why are you crying?!” She explained it was because no one had ever bought her a CD before; everyone just assumed she wouldn’t be able to hear it.
I just stared at her for a minute and let that sink in. Even though my sister was born HOH (hard of hearing), and wore hearing aids from the age of two, it had never occurred to me that she might not be able to hear a CD. When she was home from college, we would drive around in her red Pontiac Grand Am with the windows down, the music up loud and dance on our way to 7-11 for Slurpees and candy bars. When we would get to a red light, she would have me sing along to the song on the radio so she could read my lips and learn the words, too. She jammed along to the vibrations and some of the tones and seemed to do just fine. It wasn’t until she opened that gift that I realized that we were a little different from one another. And as it turned out, that lifelong commitment to Columbia House was worth every dime.
September marks National Deaf Awareness month and nestled within, we also celebrate the International Week of the Deaf People, which is recognized worldwide by members of the deaf community, their families, and interpreters. This month is especially important to my family, as we celebrate Deaf Awareness in honor of eight of my close family members that have varying degrees of hearing loss, classified between moderate and profound. In honor of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) communities, I asked my sister, Kim, to sit down with me to share some of her experiences as being HOH, a mother of a HOH child, and also the recipient of a cochlear implant:
Kristen: What are some of the most common misconceptions you feel exist about the Deaf and HOH community?
Kim: Some very common misconceptions I believe exist about the deaf community is the general population feel if they speak louder, a Deaf/HOH person can hear them better. Most often, a Deaf/HOH person relies on lip-reading, so speaking louder doesn’t necessarily help, especially in a noisy environment. However, not all can read lips. One of the funniest questions I get is, “How can you drive?!” Statistically Deaf/HOH drive better because we are more in tune with our other senses. Additionally, I feel that people sometimes assume that Deaf or HOH people are not smart, which is not true.
Kristen: What are some specific challenges that you have encountered as a HOH parent raising a HOH child?
Kim: Deaf/HOH parent(s) face many unique challenges with hearing child(ren) than a Deaf/HOH parent(s) having a Deaf/HOH child. Although being a HOH parent to a HOH child overall does have the stress of typical life events, I have experienced my child questioning why a peer wants to know why she has hearing aids. There are many resources available for my child and because I am Deaf/HOH, I am able to adapt quickly to the services and resources available. I know exactly what services she needs educationally and socially. I am able to relate to my child in more ways than a hearing parent could relate to having a Deaf/HOH child. One challenge though is that I know American Sign Language and my daughter does not. When she cannot hear me, it’s then I wish she knew some basic ASL.
Kristen: How do you think the HOH and Deaf community have been uniquely impacted by COVID-19?
Kim: Most of the Deaf/HOH community have been uniquely impacted by COVID-19 by not being able to communicate; it is very difficult when wearing a mask. We learned to figure out as time went on by using the notes app on an iPhone or Android, gesturing more and more and most were willing to pull down their mask just for the conversation purpose.
Also, being directed to a meeting via Zoom or Google, it’s very difficult to follow multiple open screens at once. If an interpreter is present at a Zoom meeting, that's beneficial. The process is a bit slower as one is not in a large room where everyone can be seen. I found it to be exhausting as one really has to focus, observe and listen.
Kristen: How has having a cochlear implant changed your life?
Kim: After having my second child, a tragic life event happened, and that was when I decided to venture down to a Cochlear Implant. Once I started the process of cochlear implantation, I began to share my experiences on what new sounds, noises, and voices I was hearing to my family and friends! It was so exciting and I learned a lot about myself and the world of noises around me. Besides better hearing, which has been a life changer in itself, I have gained so much from having this Cochlear Implant and I am thankful. I don't struggle as much as I did before being implanted; I'm hearing things that I even forgot made sounds. My life opens up each day, and I'm not afraid to ask, “What is that sound? What am I hearing?” Oftentimes, I have to learn what a sound or noise is and once I learn to hear that sound, it’s processed; I remember that sound. I still struggle from time to time, but that’s life, and I have the skills and this wonderful community of family and friends to find my way through each obstacle. Ultimately, my life changed for the better!