Updated: Mar 17
As a kid I remember always being asked questions about my cochlear implants (also referred to as: my ears). Always getting questions about what my ears were, what they did, why I needed them, if I knew sign language and the all too familiar question of whether or not I could read someone's lips. I grew up always answering these questions, I never thought twice about it. I went to a small school where I was surrounded by the same students year in and year out, from Pre-K to 12th grade. All the questions were asked in our earlier years and all the questions were answered then too. I started the beginning of my school years from Kindergarten to 3rd grade by presenting my deafness to the class. I'd explain what my cochlear implants are and why I need them. I explained what my FM system was and even shared things I loved about my ears; being deaf is incredible, not a deficit, and I wanted to make sure everyone knew that. I would get questions from students, from parents, from staff. I answered them all with my mom there to help me with the questions I hadn't yet learned to answer. Then the next time I got that question, I answered it myself. The most memorable presentation being in second grade when one of my peers came up to me afterwards to say "I'm sorry you're deaf". Second grade me genuinely did not understand what my peer was saying and instinctively responded with "why?". Thirteen years later and I still respond to that comment with "why?". Through the years I've learned where this comment comes from though my reactions to it have not changed. As I got older these presentations stopped; I had the same kids in my classes from year to year. While they'd ask me more sophisticated questions already knowing about my deafness, everyone knew that I was deaf and what my cochlear implants were. But the questions outside the classroom and the school building didn't stop.
I'd walk through the grocery store feeling the stares of others pointed directly at my ears. No matter how discreet you think you are, you couldn't be any more obvious. Over time you don't think twice about the stares, they almost fade into the background because they are so normal; a standard for you. From time to time you get someone who will approach you and ask the question you know is behind all those stares: 'what is on your ear?'. But few will actually ask this question because we live in a society where asking questions surrounding disabilities are considered to be rude. Hence where the questions stop. They stop in the form of questions and turn into stares. Ask your question; stop your stares. It's all in how you ask the question: the sincerity, respect, and sensitivity you portray. Ask your questions and allow yourself to be educated. Maybe there's some discomfort in asking your question, but I can guarantee you the discomfort of not asking and the discomfort of your stare is more. Allow the discomfort to introduce the comfort.
I'd grown up with the firm belief and philosophy that I would do everything I possibly could to answer the questions of others about my cochlear implants and deafness. It's quite simple when you think about it: questions create an opportunity to educate. By answering all the questions I could, I've always felt as if I was educating others on my deafness. Meanwhile, always having the idea in mind that by educating this one person, the next time this person interacts with someone who uses a cochlear implant, they'd be more educated than when they met me. Not only hoping through my answers that I could educate this one person, but that I could also help those in my cochlear implant/deaf community so maybe the next hearing person they interact with already knows what their cochlear implants are.
I'm not the only one living in this world. I'm not the only deaf person navigating a hearing world that only seems to provide false stigmas, stereotypes, and laser eye stares. Deafness isn't something new in our society, deafness has never not been around. As a society, how far have we come? Are we more educated, aware and accepting than we were when Edward Miner Gallaudet, Helen Keller, Beethoven or Jonathan Lambert were alive? Technology has progressed but has our societal awareness and acceptance of deafness progressed at the same rate?
The answer to this question is complex... so what do we do with this? Well, I do what I can. As I said, it's the domino effect: by answering one persons question about my deafness or about my cochlear implants, I allow them to walk away from me a little more educated for the next person they interact with who is deaf or uses cochlear implants. Given my realization that the questions have stopped, I ironically started asking myself a question: what am I doing to set up my dominos and where are my dominos falling right now?