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What I’m learning from my evolving deaf identity

evolving deaf identity
I was born profoundly deaf, diagnosed at 14 months of age. Being deaf is all I know. My deaf identity has remained steady over the years. But as I think ahead to the future, that constancy feels threatened.

As I age, my evolving deaf identity becomes more apparent as the likelihood of family members and peers having hearing loss increases. I’ll be able to share my hard-earned wisdom as I welcome them to the tribe. But it’s very different losing your hearing as an adult, so some people will have difficulty adjusting. Some might even be embarrassed to wear a hearing aid, even though they’ve seen me proudly wear my hearing aid and cochlear implant.

On the subject of hearing loss, I’m an expert. So I’ll be there for support and guidance. I’ve already fielded inquiries from friends on behalf of family members. I’m happy to do this; please take advantage of my life experience!

Comparisons

I’ve had decades of practice reading lips and body language. Any difficult scenario you can come up with, I’ve experienced. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m used to it. Someone new to hearing loss is at a disadvantage in this respect. Think of it this way: It’s been tougher for me my whole life, but later on, it’ll be easier for me. For everyone else, it’s flipped.

Read more: Do this the next time someone notices your hearing aid

Assumptions about my deaf identity

Unless I’m with my deaf friends, I’m the only deaf person in my circle. Fast forward a few decades, and that won’t be the case. If someone sees my hearing aid and/or cochlear implant, they’ll assume I have age-related hearing loss. Disclaimer: Each type of hearing loss is different.

But somehow this assumption rankles. I feel like it discounts everything I’ve been through. I posed this scenario to my deaf friends. Some of them admitted they’ve thought of this too, while it hadn’t occurred to others.

“When I get older, will people assume I have a hearing loss due to age, and if so, will their attitudes to me be different than what I experience now? My friend Jay Wyant, a bilateral cochlear implant recipient, succinctly says. “And I’ve wondered if that would piss me off…’No, I’m not one of them, I’m special!’”

When I asked Dale V. Atkins, PhD., psychologist, author, and media commentator with a specialty in hearing loss about this, her first response was that I might be feeling that a society that initially excluded me is now assuming that I’m a part of it for reasons that are “not viable.”

“I think whenever others assume something about us, we have a response (and usually it is not positive),” she says. “People who make assumptions become attached to them, believing those assumptions to be the truth. We never know what someone else is going through or has gone through, and by making assumptions we shut off opportunities to find out. The life experiences of someone growing up with a significant hearing loss are quite different from someone whose hearing diminishes with age.”

Experiences

Dr. Atkins has encountered people who have experienced the feelings I anticipate having. She says it’s not always on the surface, that it can be a “low-grade resentment” of other people’s lack of awareness (also a lack of appreciation) for the differences.

“Having worked so hard to learn language and speech with a significant hearing loss is very different from adapting to losing hearing after one has acquired language and has spent a lifetime as a person who hears normally,” she says. “Getting used to everyday life with diminished or impaired hearing as a person ages, along with adapting to hearing aids or cochlear implants is a different process for someone who had hearing loss for their entire life.”

“Having worked so hard to learn language and speech with a significant hearing loss is very different from adapting to losing hearing after one has acquired language and has spent a lifetime as a person who hears normally.”

She has worked with both types – people who are trying to adapt to hearing loss later in life after having lived with full functioning hearing and those who are mistaken for them.

The issue for people like me, Dr. Atkins says, is accepting that there may be a need for “recognition” of who we are and what we have accomplished, and that’s different from people who lose hearing later in life. It’s kind of like being a member of a club that we appear to be a member of, but in fact we’re not, she astutely says. The goal is to appreciate the difference.

Why do I feel this way? Dr. Atkins says we all want to be known for who we are.

“Our story is unique,” she says. “We do not want to be misunderstood.” It’s part of being human.

Evolving Deaf Identity 

I do have one thing that differentiates me. Because I was prelingually deaf and born before cochlear implants were a thing, I have a distinct deaf accent. Some people may occasionally think I’m from another country, but once they see my hearing devices, they’ll figure it out. Of course, this will only happen if a person hears me speak.

Dr. Atkins says to recognize the similarities and differences in our own experiences from others. Other people suggest having a sense of humor or simply not making it a big deal.

As Henry Kisor — who is older and deaf, but doesn’t wear any hearing devices — says, “Why should any of us give a damn what other geezers think about our deafness? It’s not going to change anything.”

Susan Pollack, a cochlear implant wearer, echoes this.

“Life is too short for me to worry what others are thinking about me/my hearing until it comes up,” she says.

Every day I’m reminded of my deafness and its challenges. Maybe it should be enough that my loved ones and I know what I’ve been through. Maybe I’ll get there. In the meantime, I’m the early adopter wearing hearing devices before they’re trendy.

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Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.
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Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.