I was born with hearing in the so-called “normal” range. I started losing my hearing in elementary school and received my first hearing aid when I was nine. I hated the thing. No one ever saw it, because I kept it hidden under my long hair, or stuffed in my pocket. The hearing aid didn’t help much, it merely amplified the scrambled sounds into my brain. My lipreading skills began developing as a survival tactic when I was a teen.
I hid my hearing loss every chance I could get. I played the bluffing game, feigning complete understanding when I didn’t have a clue what was said. I nodded, I laughed, I smiled in group situations while missing jokes and friendly banter. It was a lonely existence at times.
Shortly after celebrating my nineteenth birthday, I went out for a barefoot water ski run. I loved barefoot water skiing. Nothing could compare to the feeling of skimming on top of the water on my own feet. I turned to cross the wake, caught a toe and went slamming into the water. In an instant, I went from hard of hearing to deaf.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out to be a blessing.
Of course, at the time, it was anything but a blessing. I was heavy into denial. It’s just temporary, my hearing will come back. I remember the morning that I realized it wasn’t coming back. I was loading the car, preparing to leave for Northern Illinois University and I went back into the house for a final time, to grab my purse. I stood near the door and it hit me.
What if my hearing never comes back?
My mom asked me if I was ready to go. I started to cry. I didn’t know what to do. I told her how I felt and the tears kept pouring down. My mom started to cry too. “You don’t have to go, you know. You can stay home and get a job.”
But I knew that if I didn’t walk through that door, I would never have the courage to face life. Staying home would be the easy way out. Staying home was safe. I wanted more out of life.
So I dried the tears, walked out the door and when I arrived on campus, I faced another challenge: I discovered that they put me in the “deaf and hard of hearing” dorm. “Oh, that’s not for me,” I told the front desk. “I want to be in a ‘regular’ dorm.” It was too late to change it.
“Give it a try,” my mom said. “You might meet someone and make new friends. Go into this with an open mind.”
I was terrified. I didn’t know American Sign Language and now I would be surrounded by it. A stranger in a foreign land, I thought. But from the first day, I found some friends, kind souls who took me in gently and introduced me to this new world. Nighttime was a different story. Cloaked in the darkness, I cried myself to sleep.
Every single night.
I struggled in my classes. Trying to lipread a walking professor across a stage was an impossible feat. I took to borrowing notes and studying books to get through each class. My grades suffered, not only from lack of communication access, but from the excessive partying that accompanies a new student. I discovered that I could catch bits of American Sign Language much easier after a few beers.
Then one day, I had an epiphany: I could either continue to be miserable and grieve over the hearing loss– or I could move on and become the best darn deaf person I could possibly be. I pulled my hair into a ponytail, slapped on the hearing aid, and went out in public display for the first time in my life. I marched into the disability office, returned the useless FM equipment and scheduled interpreters for every class. I decided to lipread the interpreters until I could become fluent in American Sign Language.
That day, being deaf became a blessing. That was the day I learned to accept myself. That was the day I learned to rejoice in the journey and celebrate the new path that had opened up: a path filled with deaf, hard of hearing and hearing friends– a path filled with the beauty of American Sign Language.
And at the age of 44, I finally came full circle: I took up barefoot water skiing again.