What does it mean to be deaf?

September 15, 2016 | Jillian Gruetzner

That question, to me, is not one that is all that easy to answer. Why? There are so many of us who have varying experiences and relationships that have affected our own individual perspectives on what it truly means to be deaf.

As for me, I was born Deaf and raised in a family of a rather interesting makeup. My father is Deaf while my mother is hearing but she is also recognized as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) by the members of the deaf community. My older sister is hearing and my younger one is Deaf just like me. As I’m sure you can imagine, the composition of my family made for quite an interesting household while I was growing up.

The one thing that made us different than many other families is how we communicated and interacted with each other. In addition to using the traditional English, we also used ASL (American Sign Language) regularly. Sometimes, we did use SimCom (simultaneous communication) where signing and voicing is done at the same time.

However, it has fallen pretty much out of favor with me and my younger sister due to the fact that this practice does not make for full duality and true equality in the human expression as one language typically overtakes the other (i.e., the sign language is often undermined by the spoken language). But I digress—my point of referring to the forms of communication that I experienced growing up and personally use today is that it is exactly what makes deafness very unique compared to other type of disabilities.

Sign language is the core of the Deaf culture, which thrived from the deaf residential schools around the country as it allowed for the Deaf students to be able to easily communicate and understand each other. This, in turn, engendered for a culture and community made up of individuals linked by experiences and identities by simply being deaf. As a lifelong member of the Deaf community, I am so grateful to know and be immersed in a culture and language that is incredibly rich and expressive with its own traditions and stories.

Despite all the great things associated with the Deaf community, we still do face a major issue—one that we have struggled with for such a long time and still do to this day—and that is overcoming communication barriers. Since the majority of the world is hearing, there are many aspects of life in society that puts great emphasis on sound.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been told by hearing individuals that they would rather lose their eyesight than their hearing because they just cannot imagine life without sounds. Sometimes I feel hurt and offended by this statement. Other times, I just roll my eyes and shake my head in incredulous disbelief at their ignorance of what it means to live as a Deaf person.

One part of this common misconception is that not being able to hear everything somehow lowers the value and pleasure one gets from life. I can tell you that this is utterly untrue and it doesn’t really apply to me at all. In fact, I feel that my life has been enriched in a lot of ways due to me being deaf despite all the frustrations and obstacles I have encountered. To be honest, I don’t really feel that I’m disabled at all–this is a sentiment that is shared by many in the Deaf community. Many actually don’t perceive their deafness as a disability because it’s not about whether or how much we can hear but rather the fact that we use a different LANGUAGE to communicate.

This is what many people fail to realize and sometimes even refuse to acknowledge–that sign language is an actual language in its own right. It has been intensively studied and proven that it has its own grammar, word order, and pronunciation just like English, Russian, you name it. There are now so many different studies on the linguistics as well as the science of sign language as a form and use of communication. Just look them up on Google–there are a bunch of great published articles out there.

It brings me to mind this one quote by Dr. Laura-Ann Petrito, who is a world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist and currently heading the Brain and Language Lab (BL2) at Gallaudet University: “The human brain does not discriminate between the hands and the tongue. People discriminate, but not our biological human brain.”

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Jillian Gruetzner was an AAPD 2016 Summer Intern. She is currently a senior with a double major in Communication Studies and Accounting at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. This summer, Jillian interned with the Department of Homeland Security.

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