Saturday, April 24, 2010

Earning the big D

I had this nasty problem. One that no matter how hard I tried to figure out how to resolve it I never quite knew what to do.

Inevitably time and time again someone would come up to me, or I'd meet someone and I'd struggle for how I would define myself.

For those of us with hearing loss, there are quite a few options:

There is the supposedly politically correct hearing impaired, which is by no means the politically correct term that it maintains it is. I would like to figure out what exactly is impaired or deficient. Needless to say, unless someone has decided that it is an appropriate identity for themselves (typically an elderly population who has never learned to sign or would know what to do with ASL if it hit them over their heads) don't use this term to describe anyone. It isn't going to go over well.

There is the label hard of hearing. This refers to those who have hearing loss, but typically in the less severe categories. They typically rely on devices to correct their hearing such as hearing aids, and will speak and speech-read as the need arises. Typically those who identify as hard of hearing have no knowledge of ASL or Deaf culture.

There is the label of deaf which refers to an audiological state of deafness. People who identify as deaf have severe to profound levels of hearing loss, but will either correct it using hearing aids or cochlear implants or will rely on speech-reading. Again those who identify as deaf may know a few basic signs to get by, but the majority of the time they rely on other means of communication.

Then there is Deaf. Deafness in this case refers to both an audiological state of deafness as well as a belonging to the Deaf community. There is a cultural aspect to your Deafness as well. Deaf people sign, they attend events in the Deaf community, they value ASL and are often activists to protect their culture and their language.

As with any kind of an identity label they are all self-identified and there are always exceptions to any rule.

Which then leaves me. I have struggled for months with where I fit into this jumbling confusion of labels. I can hear out of one ear. I can do most of the things I do in spoken English. I sign. I use interpreters. I am involved in the Deaf community and Deaf culture. Really, for the most part I'd become an expert at avoiding the question when people asked me whether I was Deaf or hearing. I got used to the sideways glances my friends would give me knowing the story that was about to erupt from my hands or mouth depending on the setting. The fact that most of my stories begin with it's complicated seemed to be a dead giveaway.

Somewhere though, I became an activist. The rights that I were fighting for were no longer the rights of a group of people that I was supporting, but they became my own. I was fighting for my own rights to access information and events that anyone else would have the right to. It isn't just friends and acquaintances who are being denied access, it is me. The more I start to live in this world, the more it fits me, the more even though sometimes watching interpreters all day makes me want to remove my eyes from my face and eat them, the more I still value that time. It is time where I'm not standing against a wall or in a corner because I don't understand what it is going on. Where I can hear the noise around me, but not well enough to make sense of any of it. It is time when I get to be fully involved, fully engaged, happy that I'm not making a fool out of myself because I am refusing to acknowledge how much I can't hear. It is realizing how much I hate the phone, how hard it really is for me, and how cut off I am from the world if my one good ear is glued to a device, and how much I prefer to write or sign.

A friend of mine got into Ryerson this week. Hopefully eventually into my program, but for now knowing she will be at the school is enough. We started planning our year, figuring out that we wanted to be involved, both sort of realizing that we wanted the safety net of another to hold our backs. Both being delighted that we weren't going to be "the only one" at anything we went to. Realizing that it was about community and support and having spaces.

After a full day of fighting for rights, and winning the fight to have access, I realized that that was the moment, when I had least expected it. Stuck in an email war against a bureaucratic institution trying to deny their right to make their open event accessible, I earned my D and the identity debate was gone forever.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Silences Can Be Deadly

I've been thinking a lot about support lately.

Things in my life really haven't been going how I would have liked them to for the past few months now. I've been pretty quiet as just existing has seemed to have sucked up most of my energy. Nonetheless there has been a discussion bubbling away in the back of my mind.

I was invited to be a guest blogger on about the theme of bodily-self determination. I wrote about my views of myself in the context of independence and having a disability. If you are curious about it you can check it out here. Writing that post really got me thinking about the theme of support.

I think we don't like to realize how interconnected we all really are. I think we all would prefer to forget about the part where we all depend on other people all of the time. Humans are social creatures and as such without contact and support from our fellow humans we would all be unable to cope with anything.

It has taken a lot of people to get me through the last few months. I'm sure it will take even more people before it is all over. I think that being put in a position where I have had to depend on other people, and consciously depend on them has made me realize just how important having support really is. Having people I can depend on to be there, and to help and support me has made so much of a difference I can't even describe it. Finding out that people care about me that much that they are willing to drop everything that they are doing to be there if I need them is a big deal to me.

I always find myself in a position where I don't like to ask for support or ask for help. I want to be able to do things on my own, and I think that people will think less of me if I ask them for help. It often feels like my role in life is to be there to provide support for other people, but never to ask for people to give anything back to me. I am constantly reminding myself that if I enjoy being able to give support to others when they need it and ask for it, then that is a mutual thing, it is okay to ask for support when I need it too.

I think my point isn't anything terribly difficult or profound, it's something that I've worked on growing a sense of for awhile. I don't believe anymore that anything is supposed to be dealt with by a person all on their own. In anything that I've gone through I've always found that talking about it has made it better. I've had to learn how to reach out to people and start those discussions, start connecting to people, start creating dialogue sometimes about really uncomfortable and horrible things. The things that are the most uncomfortable are the ones that are the most important to talk about because the silences we create around those topics are the exact same thing that gives those events power over us.

The saying is that it takes a village to raise a child, and that no man is an island. I think that no one can exist as their own separate entity. We are all products of how we intersect and relate to others. We exist in communities and circles for a reason, we are all connected and we all depend on one another. No one person can handle the burdens or struggles on their own. When you share them around each person takes on a tiny piece, and person by person, piece by piece, eventually the tragedy becomes manageable. The community as a whole steps in to learn how to support one another and be there for one another.

It is when we are silent and too stubborn to ask for support that we end up weak. That doesn't mean that the struggle as a collective is easy or without challenge, but just that somehow with support you know you aren't alone. You know you are one of many standing to fight this fight together. Although there are times when it is truly your struggle and you must go through a piece alone, I don't think that even then we are ever actually alone. People can hold us in their thoughts, and be on either side to give us their support and hold our hands. The trick is to know that you need it and not be too proud to ask for it. To not let the silences get the best of you.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Are we really doing ourselves any favours?

I have to say, like many many others out there I have become obsessed with Glee, and since even my mother has watched it that means that probably about 95% of the population has at least heard of it if not seen it (sorry mom, I know you're reading, but let's face it, it's true).

It's actually spawned a couple of really good conversations about the things that the show does right, and the many many things that it does wrong. I kept meaning to summarize some of those conversations and my take on the broader issues around it here, but I'm glad that I waited, because as it is often apt to, something else came to my attention.

I walked into work today and found this article hanging off of one of the staff's door. It is yet another article singing the praises of Glee for bringing issues of access and dis/Ability to the forefront of North American prime time. I read it and just cringed inside. This is what we are championing as a good model of inclusion for the future Early Childhood Educators of Toronto?

I will be the first to give the show some credit where credit is due, it does as the article suggests actually cast characters with disabilities as main recurring characters, and creates plotlines around them. However, I will openly question if the inclusion of Artie as a choir member was an attempt to continue to dramatize the underdog and outcast role that the group begun from. Something along the lines of "Oh, what could make a show choir even more pathetic? Oh, I know! Let's add in a character in a wheelchair! Then later when we really need it, we can have the group drawing inspiration and spinoff plot lines from him too and no one will ever guess it was just a giant joke to begin with." I question the inclusion of the Deaf glee club from the same kind of thinking "What kind of groups could be out there that would be even worse off than this school's Glee Club? Oh! What about Deaf kids? We all know they can't sing, and oh hey criminals!, those sound like good odds."

There are two other aspects of the show that I do like. I like that Kurt had the freedom in his role to be not only as effeminately gay as he wanted, but then also to be the hero of the football team for winning the first game for them. The fact that he didn't have to change who he was and was given the freedom at this seemingly incredibly homophobic and small minded high school is showing that sexuality isn't nearly the issue that it used to be. If you have the skills go for it. The second aspect was something that was actually pointed out to me that I hadn't stopped to consider, but it was how Artie reacted to Tina divulging that her stutter was actually faked. Artie seemed very very genuine in his response that he thought that he and Tina had something really important in common, and understood what it was like to be different, but that if she was just faking then they didn't have any common ground to stand on. The bottom line was that without understanding the frustration of not having a choice in how people treat you or see you, it doesn't really matter. I can totally get Artie's frustration of "Well how come you get to walk away and be normal now, when I'm still stuck here the way I've always been."

I think the thing that really gets to me about all of this though is the idea of representation. How these things are being portrayed.

One group GLAAD (Gays & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) does a media report every year on how Queer people are represented in the media. This season's report shows that about 3% of all characters on TV are queer. This is a huge contrast to the roughly 10% of the population that identifies as queer. I'm sure that there are several other groups out there that monitor how people with dis/Abilities are portrayed, various cultural and ethnic groups etc. This is just the one that I know off hand. I'm sure that all of these groups would share a similar finding though, that people from all of these groups are under and poorly represented in the mainstream media.

This is where the problem comes in I think. People get so excited to see themselves represented on TV that they are willing to overlook all manners of sin just because they see themselves in that moment as visible. I would be lying if I said I wasn't guilty of it. The fact that Glee had a song performed in ASL by a Deaf glee club was the entire reason I even started watching the show, and figuring out what it was about.

In dealing with the Deaf school there are two things that really bother me, one I noticed right away, the other took more time and reflection. The first is how they treated the character who was the teacher of the school for the Deaf. Why not pick a strong Deaf role model for these kids to look up to? Why not have the teacher be culturally Deaf and a fluent signer? Instead they chose to make him appear to be a complete idiot who was supposedly deaf in one ear, who screamed at everyone and insisted on telling everyone repeatedly that he was deaf and why. Now, I am deaf in one ear, and if I appear as one eighth the fool that he does, someone please just shoot me now. No one goes around like that. If the point was to add comedic value, why do we always have to use disability as the playground? What is the point of trying to push the message that we are all the same, if the message that comes out is only that we good to be laughed at?

The second thing is how they chose to deal with the glee club itself. I do believe as the article suggests that the fact that both glee clubs coming together to sing imagine was this great picture of unity between the two schools, and how in an idealistic world Deaf and hearing people can all exist together harmoniously. That being said, I'm sure that on another level it was a very surface level, though appearing deeply thought out solution to a pretty obvious problem. While watching Deaf kids do their thing is beautiful to those of us who sign and value ASL, for the rest of the world out there who doesn't sign, it is a pretty boring-ass way to spend 4 minutes of their lives. The writers were even kind, they chose to have a kid who was both oral and signed to voice the song so that the viewers didn't have to depend on open captions to know what was going on. Still this was not enough auditory input for their viewers so instead of really giving the Deaf kids their moment to shine, they chose to go for the big show. When it's all about viewer numbers and advertising who can blame them right? Also, I have to say that during the finale their choice to make the Deaf choir an entirely audio-track singing horribly off-key and out of tune downright upset me. Why go through all that work to set a good thing up, and then totally write it off when it comes up again? How hard would it have been to film both scenes at the same time? Why have a Deaf choir if you aren't going to see it through?

For me what scares me is that we see ourselves portrayed in these horribly unrealistic and negative ways and we cheer. We cheer that at least we are being seen and being mentioned at all. We don't stop to think critically about the messages people are taking away with them about what our own difference looks like. We don't demand better representation, because we are at least seeing ourselves, and that is better than nothing at all. It's better than being ignored and forgotten. I just wonder how if we don't push to see ourselves represented in positive realistic ways how we are allowing ourselves to get further ahead at all.