An Interview with Levi Traxler
Levi and his wife in Banff, AB
So tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in a small town in Ohio, USA. I have hearing parents, and I’m the second of five children. My older sister is hearing, so I was the first Deaf person in my family. Then my next sister and brother were born, also Deaf, and my youngest brother is hearing. My wife is Deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL), the same as me. We live in British Columbia, and are both Early Childhood Educators.
What types of communication are used in your family?
My siblings and I grew up using total communication/signed English, but we’ve all been changing to ASL over the past few years. For me, the change happened when I went to Gallaudet University to study Early Childhood Education. As adults, my Deaf siblings and I sometimes use our voices when communicating with our mom and dad and extended family, but other than that we prefer “voice off.”
My oldest sister now tries to use more ASL. My youngest brother doesn’t sign as much, probably because there’s an age gap, and we all moved out while he was still young, but he’s really good at fingerspelling and is signed up to take ASL at high school this year. My parents continue to use voice and signed English – it’s challenging for them to learn ASL as they get older, but we still communicate well.
Has your self-identity changed or evolved over the years?
When I was growing up, it was always a challenge for me to communicate with other people. I worked hard at speaking and using English, but I never seemed to catch up, and it was frustrating. Even though I wore my hearing aids every day, my hearing and listening skills never improved. It was always the same – I couldn’t hear well, I couldn’t speak well, and it was hard. But when I went to Gallaudet, I went to ASL classes. At first, it was hard for me because I didn’t understand the language. Signed English is very different from ASL – the former uses ASL signs to follow English word order, but ASL is a unique language with its own grammar that is completely unrelated to English. My eyes got so tired from focusing and watching all day long! But after a little while, I noticed I could learn ASL fast! Every day I could understand people better, express myself better. I felt I learned more ASL in four years than I had learned English my whole life, and by the end my eyes didn’t get tired at all. I had a lot of fun, and got involved in classroom discussions. Before I had been embarrassed to ask questions, because I was the only deaf person in the classroom. But at Gallaudet I felt safe. My confidence really improved. I found my identity. As a child, I didn’t really know what my identity was – I grew up thinking of myself as “hearing impaired.” At Gallaudet I learned I was a Deaf person.
Are there things your parents did that were particularly helpful?
My parents were always involved, and I think that was so important. Also, they always asked me how I felt about things – about school, friends, if I was happy with my hearing aids. We always had good open communication. They also made our environment very visual. I remember my mom taped pictures with both the English word and the sign on everything around the house. There were pictures on the tables, the chairs, the toilet – I mean everything! I think it helped my hearing family members as well as me, so they could remember the signs. My parents also read with us a lot when we were young. They would sign the books to us, every night. The other thing I really appreciate is that my parents have followed my lead. For example, I noticed recently that my Mom has started to refer to me as Deaf instead of hard of hearing.
Are you comfortable explaining to people about your access needs? How did you learn those skills?
When I was younger, my mom always encouraged me to ask for help, but I was shy, and embarrassed. When I went to Gallaudet, I learned that I like to communicate with people and I wanted more access; I realized what I was missing, and I wanted to be included in that. Now I will ask for captioning at movies and for an interpreter at big family gatherings. These days, I’m very comfortable explaining I’m Deaf when I meet new people. I will write, gesture, or use my phone to communicate if they don’t sign. It really helps that in today’s world everyone has a phone – at a restaurant, for example, I can just pull out my phone and type what I want to say.
How was it moving from Ohio, USA to British Columbia, Canada?
When my Canadian wife and I decided to get married, I applied for immigration, and discovered that it’s a long process. But, lucky for us, it was all done by email and on paper (no phone calls required!) so it was an easy, smooth process.
I think there are a lot more Deaf people in the USA than in Canada, which makes sense, given that the population of Canada is so much smaller. There are lots of organizations and support in the USA, whereas I feel it is still growing in Canada. It’s been a bit challenging for me to join into the Deaf community here – Deaf people in BC have grown up together and it’s a very close community, so it’s harder to be fully accepted as a new person. It’s helped a lot that my wife is from BC, though.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Has your deafness impacted your choices?
When I was young, I loved to play video games because I could easily understand what was going on. There was captioning, and I could control what was happening, so I felt involved. I didn’t like going out to family gatherings, but I enjoyed watching movies, reading books, and drawing. Now I like to socialize more, as I understand and follow conversation more easily. I socialize mostly with Deaf people, but sometimes with hearing people, and that’s fine too. I played football both in my mainstream high school and at Gallaudet. I had a better experience at Gallaudet, as communication was so much easier, but I also realized I’m not really a team sports person. I prefer to watch team sports rather than play. I do enjoy being active and spending time outdoors, though. My wife and I spend a lot of time camping, hiking, and exploring BC.
What are some of the advantages of being Deaf that you experience?
If I wasn’t Deaf, I would never have met my wife! I also feel like it’s strengthened my connection with some of my siblings. I love being a visual person, it’s so cool. Being Deaf has also has taught me to be more open minded about communication and languages – each person is different, and I understand that.
Do you have advice for parents who are just starting out on the journey of raising a child who is deaf or hard of hearing?
I would say be involved, and always continue to communicate with your child. I have many Deaf friends whose parents don’t sign, or can’t communicate with them, and it’s sad. Stay open to what works best for your particular child or children, and stay involved.