Growing Up in Mainstream Public School: Things I Wish I Knew Back Then
This week we have the privilege of reading advice for those growing up deaf/hard of hearing from the very talented guest blogger, Sara Miller, M.S. Ed. Enjoy!
It was the late 1980’s when I was diagnosed with severe-profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and received my first pair of hearing aids. I was almost three and I’m told that I loved my hearing aids so much that I never wanted to take them off!
It was during the 1990s and early 2000’s when I attended public elementary/middle/high schools in small rural towns in Northwest Ohio. I was the only deaf student in my grade to be mainstreamed full time. During these years, there were a lot of trials and triumphs.
Looking back, there are a few things I wish I had known to help guide myself through the process of being the only deaf kid in my mainstream class. If I could, I would go back in time and share a few things with my younger self:
Number 1: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are many other deaf and hard of hearing kids out there who are also born into hearing families. In fact, 90% of deaf and hard of hearing kids are born to hearing families. 75% of those kids attend public school, just like you do. While you may be the only kid to be mainstreamed full time in your school, there are many others just like you out there in the world who are going through the same experiences you are. You will meet them later on in life and establish wonderful relationships.
Number 2: DO NOT READ INTO HEARING PEOPLE’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS TOO MUCH. Understand that we deaf people tend to naturally rely on visual cues much more than our hearing peers. If a person doesn’t smile, frowns, or has a neutral look on their face, it does not mean they don’t like you or are mad at you. They simply could just be having a rough day caused by something that has absolutely nothing to do with you. Acknowledge and understand this fact in order to save yourself from unnecessary hurt feelings over misreading someone’s emotions.
Number 3: PEOPLE ARE NOT STARING AT YOU WHEN YOU SIGN BECAUSE YOU’RE WEIRD OR DIFFERENT, THEY STARE BECAUSE THEY ARE FASCINATED WITH SIGN LANGUAGE. I know... This is so hard to fully believe or understand. When you know you are different, you feel as if everyone is always staring at you. Staring at your Phonic Ear box strapped to your chest. Staring at the long cords from that box that lead up to your ears. Staring at your hearing aids. Staring at your hands when you choose to communicate using sign language. That’s when the staring seems to be the worst. But what you don’t know is that those people stare because they wish they knew how to sign too. Reach out to those individuals and ask if they’d like to learn. Teach them the joy of signing.
Number 4: ADVOCATE FOR ACCESS. Hold your teachers accountable for making content accessible. Request captions for all videos and movies. No exceptions. Utilize note-takers in all subject areas. Let your teachers know not to talk towards the chalkboard and to face you when instructing. Ask your peers to repeat themselves when you didn’t quite catch everything they said in class discussions. And yes, even consider having an interpreter for your core content classes. You deserve the right to have access to ALL that is going on around you. Things you don’t even know you’re missing can be filled by having an interpreter present. Learning these advocacy skills early on will benefit you later in life.
Number 5: YOU WILL FALL IN LOVE AND GET MARRIED. In your high school years, you will often cry yourself to sleep wondering if you’ll ever find love and get married. You’ll question how someone would ever want a wife who cannot hear. Why would they choose to love someone who is deaf when they could have someone who can hear perfectly like all of your peers. Those nights of self-doubt and the tears you cry will be for nothing. You will meet your soulmate in the spring of your senior year of high school and get married that very summer just before entering college. In fact, you’ll be the first in your class to marry and he will even surprise you by signing a portion of his vows to you at your wedding. Your husband is the kindest and most loving soul who will accept and adore every part of you, especially your deafness.
Number 6: ENCOURAGE YOUR FAMILY TO LEARN SIGN LANGUAGE EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN SPEAK. You are the only deaf individual in your entire family (Extended family included). Your parents will bombard you with language and read to you on a daily basis. You’ll fall in love with reading. They’ll have high expectations for you to soak up any and all language learning opportunities around you and you will exceed those expectations. You will acquire and utilize spoken language with relative ease. Therefore, English will be your first language. In your first few years of school, you’ll learn Signed Exact English, but the only person who you’ll teach sign language to at home is your older sister. (She will later become an educational interpreter.)
However, you really need to teach your parents (and family and friends) to sign as well. They are not against it. If they knew how much it would help you in social situations, they’d learn in a heartbeat. (Looking back, they wished they had). Since you speak so well, it’s easy to fool yourself and everyone else around you into thinking that everything is being understood. But deep down, you know you are not understanding everything around you. That sickening pit in your stomach that you get when you’re about to enter a challenging environment: basketball games, dark restaurants, the mall, birthday parties, movie theater, etc., that’s a direct result of the anxiety you subconsciously have knowing how hard you’re going to have to work just to keep up with a small amount of what is going on. This is where sign language can benefit you. It can bring to life what you would normally miss. It can give you complete access to your surroundings. It can reduce your anxiety and allow you to enjoy your surroundings. So, please teach those closest to you how to sign. You’ll thank yourself in the future.
7: EMBRACE YOUR DEAFNESS. You will go through a phase in your middle/high school years where you will reject anything and everything to do with deafness. You’ll stop signing and refuse to carry your FM equipment with you to class. You’ll hide your Phonic Ear box and cords under your clothes to try to blend in with your peers as much as possible. You’ll hate being different. You’ll spend a LOT of energy and emotion simply trying to become “hearing” like everyone else is in your class.
Embrace who you are. Love yourself for who you are. Stop trying so hard to become something that you were never meant to be: “hearing.” Embracing your deafness will save you a lot of heartaches and emotional energy. Know that there are strength and beauty in being Deaf. That there is an entire community of individuals in this world who are just like you. Who knows exactly what it’s like to be deaf. Who will welcome you with open arms? Sadly, you live in a small rural town with no Deaf community or Deaf adult role models. You won’t even meet a Deaf adult until you attend college and are already a deaf adult yourself. However, as soon as you are able, seek out those who are like you. They will fill your heart in a way that the hearing community cannot. In a way that even your closest friends and family cannot. Only when you make these connections will you feel complete and fully able to truly embrace every part of who you are.
Sara Miller, M.S.Ed
🤟🏻Deaf adult bringing awareness to deafness & Deaf culture
👩🏻🏫Teacher of the D/HH
Look for more from Sara on her social media accounts: @adventuresindeafed and @languagepriority
Thank you, Sara, for sharing this with our readers. I hope it finds its way to students who would really benefit from your great advice.