The Deaf Community Taught Me How to Truly Listen
The first time I ever saw American Sign Language, I was swept away with the expressiveness and beauty of the language. It was during a loud basketball tournament, and only the Deaf players were able to communicate over the sound. It was a pivotal moment where I was able to conceptualize how different communication styles can be more useful in different situations. This experience inspired me to learn sign language, which led me to pursue teaching with a specific focus on the deaf community. Working with this community has been eye-opening. Deaf Students taught me many things, but the most important thing they taught me was how to truly listen. It’s a lesson I think we could all benefit from learning. With the social unrest we’re seeing across the nation and across the world, we need to position ourselves to be better listeners.
Following my first encounter with American Sign Language, I began teaching myself how to sign. To my surprise, learning American Sign Language was more than just learning a new way to communicate, it also taught me about the capital “D” Deaf culture, a community which does not find itself disabled, only different.
As I began my professional journey towards becoming a teacher of the Deaf who specializes in auditory learning and spoken language (which means the students I teach use hearing devices and speak), I was constantly surprised by the diversity in this unique community. While I was in graduate school, I encountered the community of Deaf students I currently work with today. These students used technology such as Cochlear Implants, Hearing Aids, and BAHAs. What blew me away was that these students were essentially learning how to listen. The neuroscience behind this experience is what solidified my desire to continue with this profession.
While there is still controversy between manual communication and spoken language, this community is able to respect their differences. Ultimately, as a deaf and hard of hearing teacher, I never change the identity of the student just because they are using hearing technology. I teach them about their hearing loss and the identity they have in that particular community. When I first began teaching, I was so afraid to remove the idea that these students are “just like everyone else,” but I quickly learned that, in bringing up their differences, I was empowering these students to embrace their uniqueness. I find it equally important, as most of my students are black and brown, to also celebrate cultural differences, so they are never confronted with their “otherness.”
My students and I have a special connection of being in a space where we may be underestimated, overlooked, or mistaken as being “unable.” Upon graduating and attending the national summit for listening and spoken language, I counted four black people in a room of 900. At every school I have worked at, I have always been the only Black deaf and hard of hearing teacher. Prior to that, I was the only Black graduate in my cohort and now one of the few black women pursuing their Phd in Deaf Education. Even with that experience, it did not exclude me from the responsibility to listen and learn from my students with hearing loss. I had to swallow my pride and admit that though our experiences are somewhat similar, I still do not understand their experience completely and must commit myself towards learning as much about it as possible.
Being vocal about identity is an integral part of D/deaf education, and I learned that even though I am hearing and cannot speak first hand of the experiences of those with hearing loss, it was still my job as a teacher to inform myself and embrace it. Not for a month, but in everything I do. I began to approach different cultures with the world view of a student. Accepting that I do not understand and accepting that in areas of ability there are also areas of “disability” as in areas of “disability” there are certainly areas of ability. If only we could humble ourselves just enough to first, inform ourselves and then, listen with the understanding that we do not understand.
Unfortunately, I am seeing a culture rise with the intention to tear apart statements and to come off as more informed than others and silence people along the way. I have seen many people chastised for not communicating on the same platform, in the same frequency, with the right actions, words or displays of passion. Have we stopped to ask their story? Have we stopped to listen? A marker of progress in language development is the ability to master what is called “turn-taking”. This marker is defined by the amount of times in conversation we are able to listen and respond. I challenge you to refer to your statements made and evaluate how many turn-takes you’ve made where you acknowledge your own bias due to class, race, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation and so on. I then challenge you to study and listen to your counterparts perspective before tearing apart their statements.
Learning about self-love from a community who decided they were not disabled is a powerful thing. Their worth and quality of life is based on their own standards much like many groups of color have reclaimed their worth in a widely white-supremacist world. It is important to understand there is so much to learn from others and not be consumed by our own experiences.
If my deaf students can learn how to listen, so can you.