Happy International Week of the Deaf! This past Sunday was the International Day of Sign Language. It was amazing to see videos, photos, posts, etc. all over social media celebrating my culture. Back in the day, it wasn’t this widely recognized. It’s a great feeling to see the deaf culture getting more mainstreamed and celebrated. Some day I hope that the daily challenges I face as a deaf individual will be lessened with more awareness!
It took a very long time for me to accept my own deafness. Growing up it was very challenging and it continues to be in my adulthood today. I have to go through many obstacles for almost anything. Even a simple task like going to the grocery store is an obstacle. If I needed help to locate a product or ask for deli meat, I have to think about how to ask someone. Do I write it down? Do I type it out on my phone? Do I try to gesture with using my deaf accent? Will they understand me?
I realized that I am sensitive to people’s reactions. When I was younger often people reacted to me with annoyance. They would look at me like I was something special. They ignored what I asked them to do which was to write on paper, giving me a dirty look. There was no attempt to even communicate with me. I realized over time that these people acted that way because of a lack of understanding on how to interact with deaf people. I believe that their fear got in the way and caused them to act like that.
When I moved to Connecticut from the deaf community in Rochester, it was hard going back in the hearing-dominated community again. I observed that there was more awareness of deaf people based on the reactions. I’d go to stores where the employees would sign “thank you” or “have a nice day.” I don’t know if it’s from awareness of deaf people getting more mainstreamed or if it was a regional thing. I grew up in a rural area of Upstate New York, there wasn’t much exposure to diversity of cultures. In Connecticut, it is a smaller state so everything is more congested which allows more exposure.
Unfortunately, these experiences with people’s negative reactions carried over with me into adulthood. I have a tendency to avoid situations where there would be interactions. I do have the courage to do some things on my own but it isn’t as frequent as it should be. Last summer, I decided to make it a goal to work on more interactions. I had the whole summer off from my job so there was no better time to work on that.
Once I go to a place where I have a positive interaction, I tend to make that place a “regular.” For example, there is a small grocery store in my town. I worked up the courage to go up to the deli counter and order by the paper-and-pen method. The woman who worked behind the counter was very positive and acted like I was just another normal customer. She didn’t act different about the way I ordered. She didn’t hesitate when she talked to me. She showed no fear. Therefore, I returned to the deli counter at that store every time that I needed deli meat. There is an oil change place in a town over from where I live that has a deaf employee, which also includes his hearing co-workers who are willing to work with deaf customers. That oil change place is my regular go-to because I’m able to communicate with them either by sign language or gesturing. I have a list of regular go-to places based on positive reactions like these or even just from someone who acknowledged me by simply signing “thank you.” This summer I had to go out of my comfort zone away from those regular go-to places and go to new places.
I traveled to Brimfield, Massachusetts for the Antique Show. It is the largest outdoor flea market in the country. It is a 1/2 mile long stretch of antique dealers. I knew that it was a possibility I would need to interact with the dealer when I saw an item I wanted to purchase. I noticed that some dealers didn’t even put a price tag on their items which forced me to communicate if I really wanted to know the price of an item. At the end of the day, I had interactions with at least 15 dealers and made two purchases.
The ironic part from that day - I decided to avoid buying lunch due to being overwhelmed from the stress of the interactions. I realized that I was too hungry to wait until I got home though since it was a long drive, so I forced myself to go up to the ‘Say Cheese!’ food truck. ‘Say Cheese!’ food truck is based out of Worcester, MA and they make gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. I struggled with placing my order at first then another employee came up to window that knew sign language! I was able to sign my order to her. The best part was standing amongst other people waiting for the order to be completed… I didn’t feel different. I felt relaxed not having to figure out if it was my meal or someone else's since I couldn’t hear them call me. The girl came up to the window and signed “Ready!” then gave me the grilled cheese sandwich. It was a long time since I had that feeling of normalcy!
Overall, there was no bad reactions from anyone at Brimfield so it helped my confidence to continue to work on my interactions. I realized from the food truck experience that if I interacted more… who knows who I’d meet? What stories or conversations I’ll get myself into? Throughout the summer, I pushed myself to go to more places to interact. I went to Starbucks more often for the delicious triple mocha frappuccino which felt like a reward!
I grew up being very shy, which is a feeling I still have today. That makes it even more difficult for these interactions. In the past, I regret not educating people from the negative experiences, so I have a goal to try to do that more. It is my hope that if people become more educated on how to interact with deaf people that running daily errands would not be such a challenge. It’s always going to be a constant battle to educate but it will be worth it to feel that accomplishment when I see them being more inclusive of the deaf people. After all, we are a part of this world!