As a child of the 70s, having been born in ’72, growing up was a huge learning experience, not just for myself, but for my family, my friends, my school, my job(s), but especially for myself. Back then, I was unique because I had a disability that not many people knew about, much less understood. I was born with a severe hearing loss due to the results of birth complications. During the ’70s, and perhaps into the ’80s, those with some form of hearing loss or deafness would be sent to a school for the deaf. In Maine, there was only one such school, and it was called Baxter School of the Deaf.
My parents wouldn’t have any of it. They refused to send me somewhere so far away. The only time I’d ever see them was during the weekends, if that. They fought for me to stay home and go to public school in our area, and miracously, with the help of several doctors, speech therapists, etc, they won the right to keep me home and send me to public school.
As I said, it was a learning experience. Not only did I had to adjust to a life with hearing loss, but so do others had to adjust to a child with a hearing loss. Thankfully, my mother made sure that I lived a “normal” life, a life that would be considered the life of a “hearing person”. Among those I still count as friends are kids, and now adults, who had perfect hearing all their lives. If I did not have those guys as friends, I’d have been very, very alone indeed, because of the simple fact that there were no kids my age who had the same disability I did.
One such experience I will relate to you now. A few years after my parents found out of my severe hearing loss, when I was but a wee kid probably still sucking my thumb, my parents decided maybe I would benefit from meeting kids who had the same issues I had. Deafness. Hard of hearing. So my father took a day off from work, and hightailed it up north with myself and my mother in tow to a Camp for the Deaf Children.
Little did I know that I would remember this experience for the rest of my life.
We arrived at the camp, and to all appearances, everything looked normal. People were normal. Kids were normal. The campgrounds were normal. Everything was just fine and dandy. My eyes probably lit up then, seeing all the fun things I could do for three, maybe four months!
We were ushered into a room and spoke with a guidance counselor. And then he showed us around on the camp grounds. As we walked around, we passed building after building where the kids would sleep or stay inside during rainy days. As chance would have it, it had just rained about an hour before our arrival, and the children did not yet leave their bunks.
Have you ever seen an old black and white film where a car would be cruising a dirty old neighberhood, and kids would be standing in their doorways, just staring distrustfully at the car as it drives by? That an ominous silence filled the air, only to be shattered by the voice of the counselor as he introduced us to other counselors, or when he showed us around? It was like a scene straight out of a horror movie, to be honest.
I thought I was home. I thought I was with kids who are…Just. Like. Me. But it was furthest from the truth. You see, I am hard of hearing, not completely deaf. Strike one against me on that one. I did not learn sign language, having been able to communicate just fine with other kids my age. Strike two against me. And finally, I was an outsider, regardless of our mutual disabilities. Strike three.
People with deafness, they are empaths. We can read lips. We can read body language. And kids? Well kids are honest to a fault. And their body language was so plain and open to see. I was not wanted. I was an outsider. And I felt every stare, every distrustful stare that day. I broke down and cried that day, so powerful were the emotions I felt emanating from the children in their houses of wood.
My parents took me out of that camp as fast as their feet could go. They knew what I saw. They felt what I saw. And I never attempted to do that again, never. Ever. Again.
Here’s the thing I learned since. I am thankful for my parents with what they did. They did not shelter me from the world, as cruel as it is. They did not inhibit me by defining me as a child of deafness. They chose to treat me as their son, a child, a child who loves to play ball. Who loves his video games. Who loves to read and write, and play games with his friends. They did not let my disability affect my happiness; they would not allow me to let my disability define who I am. And what I am.
Because of that, I was much better able to deal with the real world as a consequence. Did I have some problems as I became an adult (and afterwards?) Certainly! No matter what, there will always be ignorant, selfish, uneducated people who will judge you no matter what. But I was better able to deal with such things, and still retain a semblance of a “hearing person’s” life.
It’s okay to have friends and acquantainces from all walks of life. It’s okay to accept your deafness as a part of yourself, and it’s okay to mingle and mix with people of different race, color, religion, and last but not least, with people who can or cannot hear.
I don’t let my deafness define me. I define who I am, me alone. And you know what taught me to do that? Walking in a camp of deaf kids changed that.
Morale of the story? Don’t let anyone or anything define who you are. You are who you want to be.