A Whole New World

When I was two years old I was diagnosed with a severe to profound hearing loss. I was the first deaf person my parents had ever met. Decisions had to be made, and my parents made the best decisions they knew how for me at the time: they fitted me with hearing aids, enrolled me in speech therapy, and chose to mainstream me.  My main mode of communication with my world was through speech, and through lip-reading.

Growing up, I never really complained much about my hearing loss. Truth is, I didn’t spend much time thinking that I had one. I lip-read fairly well, and save for an FM-System and my hearing aids, as well as hearing resource teachers, I didn’t really see myself as any different than my peers. I really wanted to fit in with the world I was in, which was the hearing world and the only world I knew of at the time. There were times when I would be assertive, like if I was to watch a movie, I knew to ask for closed captions, and I knew to explain to people that I was lip-reading them. (The lip-reading part got me friends in school, especially when people realized it was an extremely useful tool in eavesdropping, but one I tried not to participate in too much – people deserved their privacy.)

I did okay in school – I excelled at reading, writing and social studies, but in math and science I fell behind. I was an okay student, and I did what I had to do to get by. I did love school, but I never looked forward to it, simply because it was both frustrating and exhausting in terms of how much work it was to keep up to hear.

My frustration was at an all-time high when in high school, my hearing loss took a turn for the worse and I was no longer getting by on my own:  my hearing that I had couldn’t support me anymore. It was at that point an interpreter was assigned to me. Having a sign language interpreter there was the first time I really accessed everything I had been missing out on – PA announcements, movies that weren’t captioned, what students were saying in the back of the room. Although at the time I was not fluent in sign language, I understood everything my sign language interpreter was saying (she signed a mixture of ASL and English); I really believe that people who are hard of hearing or deaf are amazing adapters and that our brains autonomously adjust to things we know will help us communicate.

After high school, I enrolled at the Youth in Transition Program provided by the Provincial Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, where I met other deaf youth who signed and had a counsellor who supported me in my educational pursuits. It was then that I learned about Gallaudet University – the world’s only school for the deaf and hard of hearing teaching exclusively in American Sign Language (ASL). It is thanks to my hearing resource teacher in my final years of high school and the Deaf community in Vancouver who supported and encouraged me in my pursuit of immersing myself in ASL that I drew the courage to transfer to Gallaudet University.

Gallaudet isn’t like any other place I’ve ever gone to. For me, it encapsulates everything that Aladdin and Jasmine were singing about in their movie, about a whole new world. Especially the part about no one to tell us “no”, because at Gallaudet, everything is completely accessible, on a level I never knew was possible. Gone are the days of PA announcements being inaccessible – they’re done on a TV screen in sign language. Everything is taught in Sign Language directly, and the class discussions that were always hard for me to be a part of suddenly become engaging and entertaining, everyone signing.

One of my fondest memories of Gallaudet is one of the first days of classes when I transferred in and the teacher had announced we were watching a movie. I unconsciously raised my hand to ask the question I had been asking my entire life: is the movie closed captioned? After I asked, I caught myself in a smile as everyone around me looked at me and laughed with me: of course it was. This was a school where everyone was like me. Where we weren’t “hard of hearing” or “deaf” or “disabled”, we were students having our dreams come true, within a world that wasn’t stopping us. Teachers actually know you by name, and the biggest class size I’ve had was with 20 people.  I’ve become a better public speaker because so many of our classes require presentations where we receive feedback and support from both teachers and peers.

It’s been said that an education isn’t worth a great deal if it teaches you how to make a living, but not how to make a life (unknown). At Gallaudet, I find this has come to be true. Gallaudet’s teaching doesn’t end when classes are over, it stretches on, to the cafeteria lunches and dinners where you can engage with your peers in accessible communication and sometimes out -of- this-world debates. The typical late night college study sessions consist of music – songs are signed in ASL combining both worlds into one. Fire alarms that consist of flashing lights instead of sound, proving you don’t always need to hear in an emergency.

Before Gallaudet, I was an average student, never really putting the time into school to excel. At Gallaudet, however, that all changed. I’ve joined a sorority. I’ve taken amazing classes like the BioPsychoSocial Aspect of HIV/AIDS. I have been on the Dean’s List for several semesters and have won several scholarships. I even got to participate in a federal internship.

I care about my education now, because it’s accessible to me and I have people around me who challenge me daily without a language barrier. I met one of my best friends through the Honours Program at Gallaudet, and we continuously push each other to become better scholars as well as people; she’s now pursuing her doctorate degree, and every time I’m not sure I can do it or I start to doubt myself, I remind myself that she has set the bar higher and that I should too.

I have met some of the most incredible people at Gallaudet. They have taught me patience, kindness and resilience. When I have doubted myself, they were there, picking me up, encouraging me in a way that I have never had before, because they know what it’s like to both hear, and to not. Sometimes, no explanation is necessary, because they’ve been in my exact shoes before. And they inspire me, because for the first time in a long time, I know that I’m not alone.

My time at Gallaudet is coming to an end, but I won’t forget the lessons I’ve learned and I cherish every moment I have spent there. I don’t simply feel like I’m leaving a college, I feel like I’m leaving a home. Gallaudet has instilled in me a pride for being deaf and hard of hearing. I take comfort in knowing that I have been to a whole new world, one that is filled with beautiful hands and beautiful dreams, and the knowledge that nothing is impossible if you know how to make a life and not just a living.

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