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Deaf Identity, Interrupted

One gem emerged from the deaf blogosphere blitz which arose during the May 2006 protests at Gallaudet University. It is Genie Gertz’s video succinctly explaining the complex concept of Deafhood in just a few minutes. When I saw it for the first time, it totally clicked for me. I memorized it and repeated the video to all my friends for weeks thereafter, copying her sign for sign.

Of course, in the months following the protests, my mind shifted to other things; I moved to Sri Lanka and left all thoughts of Gallaudet, Deafhood, and Genie Gertz far behind.

Until last Wednesday when my cochlear implant processor stopped working. Something to do with the high humidity or salinity of the air around here–electronic equipment does not last as long here as it does back home. My vast auditory world was reduced to a infinite string of rapid, extremely irritating clicks.

Let me explain my usage of my cochlear implant prior to this incident. I wore it most days, but every now and then–usually on a weekend day–I wouldn’t wear it for a day, sometimes two days. Sometimes I just don’t feel like putting it on and hearing the noisy world around me.

After all, I am deaf first, and it is back to this original condition I should want to occasionally return. I have been completely deaf since birth and got the implant fairly recent–four years ago at age 21. I have to get used to not hearing again, but this phase passes quickly and I am my plumb happy deaf self again.

Do not misunderstand me. When I say “hear,” I do not mean I hear like, well, a hearing person. I cannot talk on the phone. I cannot pick apart lyrics from a record. I cannot understand people who talk only into my ears and not into my eyes as well. What my implant provides for me is improved clarity in lipreading people, improved control over my own voice, and oh, wow, almost all the natural and man-made sounds around me.

So choosing at my own leisure to hear or not hear; I had the best of both worlds. Except now that my cochlear implant is broken, I am forced to not hear anything all the time.

And I don’t like it.

I want my hearing back. It is disorienting to have people talk to me and have nothing come out of their mouths. It is downright scary to walk on the dirt roads and not hear the honks of speeding cars and three-wheelers behind me. My balance is off. I cannot communicate as effectively as before. Even my Sinhala Sign Language feels more inept.

Genie Gertz explained that, in the gloriously complex world that is D/deaf/ness, there existed a continuum with two extremes. Extreme A: the audiological condition of deafness–something to be examined, measured, fixed, cured. Extreme B: the journey of cultural identity that is Deafhood–becoming a full, self-accepted deaf human being.

I feel as if I have been snapped from a slingshot positioned at the Deafhood extreme, careening towards the other extreme where all the audiological equipment, decibel levels, the sheer pain of not being able to hear lies.

In conversations, I think again and again, Oh my god–I cannot hear you! Why am I thinking thoughts that only a late-deafened person should have? Was my deaf pride so conditional on the functionality of my cochlear implant, a device that medically makes people less deaf? Has four years of cochlear implant usage done what I had told everybody would not happen–made me a less deaf person?

Why is there not another, secret letter-D in between capital-D and lowercase-D in which I could hide with all the other aurally-confused souls?

So I turn to my sister and tell her I am frustrated that I cannot hear, but more frustrated at the fact that I am even frustrated in the first place. The soothing words of a big sister has always worked in situations like this, and last Wednesday was no exception. She reminds me that I am in a seriously hearing environment surrounded by hearing people (despite that I work at a deaf school)–so it is natural that I should depend far more on my cochlear implant. Every day, I must engage in spoken conversations with people who know little English and whose lips twist (or don’t twist) in far different patterns than American English speakers.

“You’re not in the deaf mecca anymore,” she reminds me, implying that it’s not just as easy to turn off my implant and pretend all is okay as it’d be in Washington, D.C. Her words reassures me–yes, it is only because I am in Sri Lanka–that I am upset about my implant not working.

But I still want my hearing back. Gasp! Is a deaf person even allowed to say this and claim he or she is still culturally deaf? Can a deaf person count down the days to when he or she will get a replacement processor and be happily thrust back into an audio-enabled world? Is that not frowned upon by the high priests of Deafhood? Do I not deserve the label of “Borg”–a mythical creature that is neither human, Deaf, artificial, or hearing?

So I take a step back and work through some armchair philosophy. The Gallaudet protests, in response to the university public relations office’s insistence that this was a “Jane Fernandes Is Not Deaf Enough” protest, maintained that there was no such thing as a “typical” deaf person. Oral, ASL, Deaf-Blind, CODA, Hard of Hearing–let all be united under a single banner! Everyone between Genie Gertz’s two extremes is included.

I find this definition agreeable, because it allows me to remain a deaf person despite my craving for a sound–any sound! But is it ultimately a cop-out?

Genie Gertz’s video no longer enthralls me; the two extremes she outlines for me are not mutually exclusive for me anymore but blend into a wet, sopping mess. I feel deaf; I roar Deaf; I miss my ASL environment tremendously; but by being painfully aware that my ears do not work, I remain impaired. Disabled. Handicapped.

I think of another cop-out. I have Usher’s–so of course, I should want the maximum functionality of all my other senses, including hearing, to counteract my visual limitations, right? Isn’t that one of the main reasons I got my implant in the first place? But it’s not that, either. I don’t want to hear just so I can hear what I can’t see. I want to look at people’s lips moving and also hear melodious voices pulsating from them (whether that’s in Sinhala or English!).

Another angle: maybe I should not even think about “identity” issues at all? I am in a third-world country where deaf people struggle to eke out a living. Isn’t the sophistry surrounding the sociology of the deaf communities ultimately a bourgeoisie activity, unsuitable for those who are far more concerned with practical matters of life such as finding a roof over one’s head? Perhaps I can avoid this whole issue until I’m back in the comparatively luxurious lap of Western civilization. But, as my friends keep reminding me, avoidance is not a positive way to deal with issues, no matter how high up on Maslow’s hierarchy they may be.

There is no way out of my conundrum. A good trick for getting out of tricky spots is to change the dimensions around you; in other words, don’t think in the box–morph the box into a sphere and see what happens.

So with my deaf identity irreconcilable with my longing to once again hear kingfisher birds sing in harmony with Indian Ocean waves smashing upon the shore, I realize it is time to change the rules. My deaf identity will just have to change to match my new situation.

So I proclaim: Adam Stone is a deaf human being who likes having the option to hear!

Is that really so different from any deaf person who wears a hearing aid and feels lost when it is broken? Or the deaf person who suddenly feels more plugged into the world when he or she wears a hearing aid for the first time in years?

But what does this say about deaf people in general, that so many of us wear our aids and implants? Does it not imply that deep down each one of us, there is a small, sad deaf child yearning to hear and who will turn petulant if denied the opportunity to do so?

The questions grow too big for me to answer all on my own. I decide to leave them in the capable hands of Genie Gertz, among others, and go to sleep under my mosquito net. At least, in my dreams, I can hear.

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