When I was young, my father would sit my sister and me down and tell us that the two most important things in life are family and education. Then he would turn to me and say, “But you, because you are deaf, you will have to work twice as hard for everything. For an education, for a job, and for all the things you want in life. This is not fair, but the world was not built for people like you. It was built for people who do not have a disability.” I took his words to heart — what else was there for me to do? There was no counter-narrative offered to me other than this stark, glass-cold version that the world did not have room for a person like me at the table.
My father was right though — during the decades I was growing from a child to a woman, I did have to work twice as hard, and sometimes even harder. And it was not just a struggle to gain access to education, the right to sit in a classroom with peers of my own age, and to read books at my grade level (yes, I even had to fight for that). It was also a long, slow struggle to gain access to the stories on TV, to the emergency alerts on the radio, to the announcements at the airport, and to all the words that floated maddeningly just beyond my reach.
I look at you, you who can hear, and I see many of you take this privilege for granted. You sing along with the radio, pick up side conversations, make phone calls effortlessly — without even thinking. I used to haul out a large, dusty TTY when I wanted to slowly type out one word after another. Today, I can make phone calls through video technology, but only if my cell phone connection is strong enough.
You glide through the easy, Sunday afternoon conversations at the grocery store (“How are you? Fine, this weather though!”) I stare at the ATM, not hearing the clerk’s words, and then when I look up, they glance away in uncomfortable silence.
The airports are the worst. Flights are always changing or delayed, being moved to a different gate — it all happens so quickly with invisible words that fly over my head via loudspeakers.
I remember flying from Sacramento to Los Angeles — or that was where I was supposed to go. I exited the plane (how quickly the flight went, I thought) and almost walked out of the airport before I realized we were in Oakland — an entirely different part of the state. After standing in line at the terminal and attempting to communicate with the airline staff person, I finally understood that the flight had been diverted due to mechanical difficulties.
I must arrive early, I must watch intently, I must not miss a thing.
It’s exhausting reading your lips, your face and watching your body language intently. I try to match you, step in time; I try to never miss a beat. You tell me that I speak so well for a deaf person, and you praise my ability to pretend I can hear. I wish you knew that I don’t want to speak, and I don’t want to pretend. But the world was not made for people like me. So I do.
Today I work in education, and I love my work. When I interviewed for this job that I love, I was asked, “Why do you want to work here, at this community college?” I told them the story about my father, how he told me that education was one of the two most important things in life. How this shaped me as a person, as an educator. I shared how he told me that I would need to work twice as hard because I am deaf, and that the world was not made for people like me. Then I told them I believe my father had good intentions, but he was wrong.
I believe people with different abilities, different identities, with different lived experiences should not have to work twice as hard. I believe that those of us who walk easy, and those of us who don’t, that those that can hear, as well as those who speak through their hands, that all the people who have carried these false, glass-cold versions of themselves are equally powerful, valuable and much-needed in this world.
I want to work here so I can be a part of the work to dismantle systemic barriers, to remind the world to step aside, ever so slightly, and make room for those of us who have been marginalized, overlooked and pushed aside. I want to offer a counter-narrative to all the people who have been carrying the heavy burden that they must work twice as hard. It is time to put that burden down. It is no longer our legacy; it is not our birthright. No, it is time to tell a different story — a story where the world gladly steps aside with sweeping arms and makes room at the table for people like you, and for people like me. “Welcome home,” they will cry, “welcome home.”