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Inttranews Special Report: the Deaf Culture


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Many of us have friends or family who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and know how frustrating it can be to communicate under those conditions… but what about the people with the handicap?
Kelli Deister is the new Deafness Editor for BellaOnline (http://www.bellaonline.com). She is deaf on her left side, and hard-of-hearing on her right side, due to an autoimmune disorder. She began to lose her hearing in late 1998, at the age of 35, as a result of domestic violence.
Inttranews decided to learn more about the Deaf Culture…

Inttranews: How long did it take you to overcome your deafness?
Kelli Diester: I am not sure, quite honestly, that I agree with that question, merely because it implies that deafness is a problem that must be overcome. I prefer to think of it as accepting a jewel in my life and acclimating to a new environment. I hope to never overcome my deafness. I hope, instead I hope to maintain my joy and pride at being Deaf.

Inttranews: How did your family and friends react to your deafness?
KD: They were saddened to hear that I was losing my hearing. Initially, there were questions of whether or not I would be able to drive or work. However, perhaps the highest frustration for me in this area was the fact that I struggled to hear them as they spoke to me. Oftentimes, I would ask them to repeat themselves, and they became somewhat frustrated at having to constantly repeat what they said. They frequently said things such as, "Never mind!" or "Forget it!" This was very challenging for me to overcome, because I initially felt as though it was my fault that I had acquired this new hearing loss. Although it has happened less frequently, it does still occur on occasion, and still hurts when it does happen. I feel belittled and ashamed, during those times, that I cannot hear them. It underscores the fact that we live in two separate worlds.

Inttranews: Who or what helped you most to accept becoming deaf?
KD: My first American Sign Language teacher at Kapiolani Community College. Her name is Ami and the first day that I attended her class in American Sign Language 101, she told me how excited she was to meet me. That made me feel so welcome! Ami is completely Deaf. She is also now one of my best friends. She taught me so much about deafness, and about having pride in my deafness. She taught me that it wasn't a shameful thing, but something to be proud of. She helped to introduce me into the Deaf Community. Oftentimes, Ami would listen to my frustrations at trying to adjust to deafness in a predominantly hearing world. She is also my mentor. I can go to Ami with anything. It is because of her that I can now accept it fully, and now hold a sense of pride.

Inttranews: How long did it take you to master ASL?
KD: I'm not sure that anyone ever completely masters ASL. I have spoken to interpreters and teachers who work with the Deaf, and have been told that they must constantly take courses and work with mentors to stay on top of this very unique language. I took the first level of American Sign Language, and have learned the rest of my ASL vocabulary through personal study. Perhaps it is the fact that ASL is rapidly becoming my main language, that has also helped me to become more fluent in the language I use interpreters in situations such as court and church. Therefore, I am exposed to it frequently. I am also driven to learn this language, being that it is now my language of choice.

Inttranews: Could you briefly describe the ASL teaching / learning environment?
KD: When I was a student, and first dealing with my hearing loss, I needed some form of help in the classroom. Because I was raised hearing, I spoke very good English. However, at this time, I couldn't hear very well at all. I used a combination of the Computer Assisted Notetakers and interpreters. I relied, as a student, on those forms of help, as well as on lip-reading. I remember one professor that I had, spoke into the microphone of the FM Receiver that I was using, and spoke very slowly and loudly, simply because I had asked him to repeat what he said. I was thoroughly humiliated and never asked him to repeat anything again. Perhaps the greatest challenge in a learning environment that I had was in regards to group activities in college. All the other students were hearing and I could sense that they were extremely awkward. I felt as though I had something that was contagious. They all sat 'away' from me, and kept staring. I wanted to tell them, "It's okay, you won't catch it! I promise!" (smiles) I was left out of frequent group discussions, simply because I couldn't hear the students. After some time, I gave up asking them to repeat themselves as well. Other than those experiences, the professors I had were wonderful. Two of my first professor, math and English, were amazingly supportive and went out of their way to assist me.

Inttranews: Has deafness affected you financially?
KD: Yes, it has. I remember when I first lost my hearing, and applied for a clerical position. The interviewer, upon hearing that I was losing my hearing, replied that they really couldn't hire me because I needed to be able to answer the phone. It seemed, from then on, to be a major stumbling block in my job search, since I could answer phones. However, the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation began to help me. They paid for new job training through my college education, paid for interpreters, and assisted me in my goal planning and achievements. Because of their help, I am now an assistant instructor at a local community college. If it hadn't been for their help, I believe I would not have equal opportunities with employment; thus, struggling financially.

Inttranews: What impact has deafness had in your work and on your colleagues?
KD: I work with those that are Deaf, as well as those that assist the Deaf. Therefore, it has a highly positive impact on me. I am constantly learning, from both my colleagues, and my students. Working with the Deaf has been a tremendous blessing for me. The only challenges I sometimes face at work, is with a few hearing people, who forget that I have a hard time hearing. I have learned to adjust daily to my deafness, even at work. I use a combination now of lip-reading, and grasping at whatever words I can hear. Throughout this process, I then use my mental capabilities much like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. I use the words I 'heard' through lip-reading, blend them with the words I am able to hear, even remotely, and then mentally race to put the sentence together so that I can appropriately respond to the hearing person.

Inttranews: What experience have you had with sign language interpreters?
KD: I have had to have the assistance of interpreters often, and quite honestly, I have had only one struggle that I can think of. I believe strongly in American Sign Language. I do not agree with Signing Exact English, because to me, I feel that I am making the transition from the hearing community to the Deaf community. I have accepted my deafness. Therefore, to sign SEE to me is actually an insult, simply because I am not hearing. I believe that to sign SEE to me is to expect me to 'hear' as a hearing, English-speaking individual would. I attend a church that signs frequent SEE, which is difficult for me. I am expected to sign along to songs in SEE, rather than in ASL -- my language of choice. Other than the experiences with those that sign SEE, my experiences have all been wonderfully supportive. The interpreters that I have met have all been very patient in my learning process, and repeated signs when necessary. Had it not been for them, I would have faced greater struggles.

Inttranews: What experience have you had with the Deaf Culture?
KD: Because my deafness is still rather recent, I am now beginning to be acclimated to the Deaf Culture. I have learned so much about the Deaf Culture and feel that I most belong there, rather than the hearing culture. I now help to teach Deaf students during the week, which is an honor for me, as well as a privilege. I have attended functions in the Deaf Community, and President for one semester of the American Sign Language Club at the community college, where we did a Sign Day on campus. I look forward hope to attending many more Deaf activities in the future.

Inttranews: What is your opinion about cochlear implants? (Editor’s note: there are arguments for and against them, some prefer to maintain a genuine Deaf Culture etc.)
KD: That is a tough question because there are such strong debates for both sides. However, I can tell you honestly, that I would not choose an implant for myself. There are some that have chosen this route, and that is their personal right. If they are happy, then I am happy for them. However, my personal stance on this is that it is up to each individual to determine what is best for them. I believe that the Deaf culture has a rich heritage. Many Deaf people are successful in life. The Deaf have much to be proud of. They are a unique culture and a close-knit community. I have full respect for them. I would rather be completely deaf, than have an implant. There are so many pressures on the Deaf to 'act' hearing in this world. I wish that our society was a balance of both hearing and Deaf accomodations, but it does seem slanted. This is where I believe the cochlear implants come into play. Hearing is not required to succeed in this world. Implants seem to put great emphasis on fitting in to the hearing world around us. I must say, though, that I do respect the choices of those who have opted to use the implant. If it works well for them, than they are to be supported in their decision. I don't believe there is any wrong or right here -- it is what it is, for each individual.

Inttranews: What are the things that annoy you most about hearing people?
KD: When I go to the grocery store, if a person is behind me and waiting for me to move, I cannot hear them. I am often slammed with shopping carts, because hearing people think I'm being rude. When, in fact, I cannot hear them. I have had countless bruises due to this. Another difficulty is when hearing people try to yell at me to get me to hear. They don't understand that with my level of tone loss, that makes it so much harder to understand them. If you see Deaf people conversing, please don't stare. This is equivalent to staring at hearing people having a conversation. Lastly, I truly wish that more hearing people would take an interest in ASL. It is a language, belonging to a very special culture. I believe there should be more respect for the Deaf, from the hearing culture. Accept us, for who we are. We are not disabled because of our deafness. We are just as capable of succeeding as any hearing person.

Inttranews: How would you like hearing people to behave with you?
KD: Be respectful. Do not treat me like I am 'contagious' simply because I cannot hear. Do not slam me with shopping carts, or yell at me because I am Deaf and cannot hear you. Treat me as your equal. For that is what I am. We are equals in this world. You hear with your ears. I hear with my eyes. We both still adequately hear. You speak with your mouth. I speak with my hands. However, we both adequately communicate. I know your language, please take the time to know mine, for we are equals in this world.

Inttranews: Do you think government services should do more on behalf of the hearing impaired, and if so, what?
KD: yes, I do. I believe that more services should be provided in regards to employment interpreters. I also believe that when workplaces have Deaf working in the environment, they should offer ASL classes to all interested parties. The government needs to realize, in my opinion, that the Deaf are here to stay. They should not be expected to 'adjust' to a hearing world, but rather be recognized for their culture and accommodated accordingly.

Inttranews: Some people partially find their handicap a "blessing in disguise", because it has forced them to see the world differently. To what extent would you agree with that?
KD: Yes, I strongly agree! I see my world through my eyes now. I see details around me that I otherwise would not have seen. One example I frequently give is the raindrop. Hearing people hear the rain as it pours outside their windows. I hear the rain as well. However, I hear the rain as I watch it slowly slide down my window. I hear the rain as I watch a raindrop gently rest on a rose petal. I hear the rainbow through its vibrant colors. Our world is a beautiful place to behold with hearing eyes.









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