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March-April 2017

From hearing to hard-of-hearing to deaf: A journey through sound

Sarah Vermette

LTKeanM8cThere are many videos online of people hearing for the first time through a cochlear implant. The adult recipient typically cries tears of joy.

This was not my experience. When the sound was turned on at age 24, it caused physical and emotional discomfort. It shook my world. I spent the next few days sleeping in the closet, because it was a small, dark, and womb-like space where I felt safe. My reality and perception of the world—and myself— had been forever changed.

Throughout my life I’ve been hearing, hard-of-hearing, and now, deaf. I was diagnosed with a profound high-tone hearing loss at age 10 with my first hearing test. The reason for hearing loss is not always known. In my case, after ruling out meningitis, the hearing loss was assumed to be the result of a severe throat and ear infection I had from tonsillitis when I was 3.

Accommodations, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, enable people with hearing loss to function more easily, allowing opportunity through enhanced access with the goal of equality. However, equality is often translated as the need for normalcy, or to fit in. It is here, in this grey zone, the gifts of differently abled people go unnoticed and society is robbed from the benefits of understanding, appreciating, and nourishing otherness.

The grey zone, and the struggle that exists within it, is real. I grew up in the Saskatchewan public school system, where oralism is the preferred approach to hearing loss. This is an archaic and damaging belief system created in the 1800s by Alexander Graham Bell, which promotes removing access to sign language and taking an oral-only approach.

When a person who is deaf or hard-of-hearing is pushed to acclimate to the hearing world with no other options, it prohibits room for exploration of their hearing loss— an intrinsic part of what guides their relationship with the external world—and runs the risk of creating a false or confused self-identity when all they have for points of comparison are people who are hearing, who are not like them.

This one-way approach—the push for me to hear—led me to dismiss my hearing loss as I was growing up. After diagnosis, the focus from audiologists was purely on “fixing” the hearing “problem” with hearing aids that didn’t work. I hid them in the furthest, darkest corner of my bottom dresser drawer.

It was only when I accepted my hearing loss in my teens and 20s that I started coming into focus. I was old enough to understand who I was, not in spite of my hearing loss but because of it. I saw the gifts I had gained: a deep sensitivity, empathy, and compassion; a tendency to read body language to see what’s truly being communicated; and noticing an incredible depth of detail in the external world through my eyes. So, when I received my cochlear implant at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, my sense of self was threatened—Will I lose who I am if I’m able to hear?

I learned my speech perception was only 25 percent, a fact I had missed due to my ability to read lips with 99 percent accuracy. This led to a long journey in coming to terms with how much I must have missed in the moments when my back was turned, a fact I had been ignorant to. The cochlear implant brought my speech perception up to 75 percent and I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders: I didn’t have to rely on lip reading so much to get by. Not having to focus as much on this exhausting task allowed me to turn the lens inward and start to get to know myself in a deeper way.

In 2012, in my early 30s, I found out I’d lost the rest of my hearing. Once again, the reason for this hearing loss was unknown. But, rather than being filled with grief, I accepted it. I discovered the Deaf community, sign language, and peers in Saskatchewan. I thought, I’ve found my people.

Yet, the more I tried to identify with the culture, and with an intensely difficult struggle to learn and retain sign language, I felt increasingly helpless and filled with sorrow.

After years of being confused about where I belonged, I realized the belief that I needed to choose between the hearing and Deaf community was a detriment. Instead, I chose both. I would honour myself as an individual and make connections in all communities. I realized I didn’t need to identify zealously with a particular community or the boundaries of a label. Most importantly, making the choice to stand firm in my authenticity and individuality allowed me to realize this: I am not a deaf woman. I am a woman who happens to be deaf. The person—the humanity, the heart—comes first.

When we make ourselves small, defined within the challenges of a condition, we surrender our authenticity. When we aim to fit in and be like others, or force others to be like us to appease our comfort zone, we throw away the chance to share and experience the magic of unique perspectives. Learning to see myself beyond the limitations of deafness has allowed me to see others beyond what meets the eye. We do not have to be limited in our experience of ourselves, or the world, simply because we have a condition that limits us.

Many people are working on various initiatives to bring about access and inclusion for the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) community in Saskatchewan. Sarah Vermette is working with hard-of-hearing youth and adults on an art project aimed to help grow a community for this demographic, the Prism Project (www.prismproject.ca). She also holds a seat on the working committee for DHH initiatives with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.

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