The Challenges of Being Deaf in a Hearing World

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The Challenges of Being Deaf in a Hearing World

Even though I knew that I was Deaf and used sign language, parts of my identity were still fragmented.

This article is part one of a series on accessibility in Toronto for a Deaf, queer, nonbinary person.

A scene from Mayfest, an annual Deaf expo hosted by the Ontario Association of the Deaf. Photo courtesy of the OAD.

A scene from Mayfest, an annual Deaf expo hosted by the Ontario Association of the Deaf. Photo courtesy of the OAD.

I grew up in small-town southern Ontario. I hated it—I wanted to experience something bigger, but I didn’t know what or how. My life was slightly different from others. I was a deaf kid living in a hearing world.

Growing up as a deaf kid was really challenging. There were limited options, especially in a tiny community. Unlike hearing kids who went to their local schools, I had to get up earlier than other kids so I wouldn’t miss the short school bus.

Our deaf and hard-of-hearing program was at a mainstream school with other hearing kids. The deaf kids would have their own homeroom, taught by a “teacher of the deaf.”

Students in our program would occasionally be placed in “normal” classrooms with other hearing students, communicating through the use of an interpreter. Unfortunately, none of the teachers in the program were actually deaf, so no examples of healthy deaf adult role models were present in my childhood.

The only other option was to attend a provincial school for the Deaf. The problem? I couldn’t stand being away from my mother, and attending the school meant that I’d have to live in residence. So I didn’t have much exposure to the Deaf community growing up, except for a few events here and there.

I remember attending Mayfest, an annual Deaf expo hosted by the Ontario Association of the Deaf (OAD) at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. The number of deaf and signing participants often overwhelmed me—they signed so differently, not like the way I did.

There were literally hundreds of them from various backgrounds, of different races, and of all types of disabilities. This event was something that I looked forward to every year—a favourite part of my childhood, being in a space where we could celebrate being ourselves.

It was not until I became a teenager that I understood that my school taught us Signed Exact English (SEE) and not American Sign Language (ASL). So that was why others signed differently.

The signing system I had learned was intended to accommodate hearing people and “improve” our English literacy skills. This, I felt, had taken away my Deaf community and Deaf culture. I was being assimilated, and, due to that, I had no sense of identity.

Even though I knew that I was deaf and used sign language, parts of my identity were still fragmented. Nearly everyone around me was straight and I didn’t fit the mold. I knew that, despite being deaf, I was further marginalized by my own Deaf community. What did you expect? Growing up in a small community meant limited options, limited resources, limited identities, and limited access.

This meant that the Deaf community that I grew up in was not accessible for me as a deaf person with emerging identities yet to be discovered.

In Grade 12, something happened that paved the way to my discovery as a culturally deaf person. There was an interpreter shortage, and I couldn’t attend all of the classes that I registered for. I remember showing up for a class and the interpreter was not in her typical assigned seat, and the teacher continued to speak while I looked around, feeling lost, like a fool.

That was it. The lack of accessibility led to my ultimate decision to transfer to a school for the deaf.

Through socializing with Deaf peers, fragmented parts of my identity and soul were finally put back together and began to feel whole. This journey helped me unpack internalized audism, and change the “d” in deaf to a “D,” to represent my transition to a culturally Deaf person.

Approaching the end of high school, I thought, “What am I going to do?” I thought I’d attend a local post-secondary institution, become a teacher, and lead a very boring life, only because that’s what my family wanted for me. But what did I want? To be accepted, to be in a place where I could be myself.

That space was discovered at Gallaudet University, where I met more members of the queer and trans community. That led to me coming out, embracing different parts of my identity.

Every summer on break from university, I attended the Pride festivities in Toronto and discovered the Ontario Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf, where I met more folks like me.

But what was in my future after graduation? I wasn’t so sure yet.

Toronto was this place that I’d always dreamed of living in. This city was the place that I was going to move to after I graduated from Gallaudet University.

Being the capital city of Ontario, you’d think this city would be accessible for a person like me.

Toronto, you are exceptionally large, with a population of more than six million people in the city and its surrounding areas. Here, you can expect to find a few communities that you belong with. You’d expect more options, more resources, more identities, more accessibility, right?

The next article in this series will detail what accessibility in Toronto looks like.

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