I spent the last two years writing a book for my publisher, which required near-daily communication with my editor, proofreaders and publicists. We mostly talked about the book, but also of weekend plans or current events or must-try ice cream flavors. I considered these people my friends, and yet two years into our relationship, I divulged something I probably should have brought up on day one:
“Uh, so… I’m deaf.”
“Wait, what? Like you can’t hear?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
You might think that would be an awkward conversation to have, and you would be right.
When you meet me, right from the second I say “hello,” it’s the most obvious thing about me: I’m deaf. I have been since 2 ½ years old, when a virus killed off the nerve endings in my ears, rendering me unable to hear. I wear a hearing aid, but it doesn’t do much in the way of amplification. I rely on lip-reading. I speak the way I hear, so every new conversation partner cocks their head like a springer spaniel, trying to place the foreign country behind my heavy accent.
When people can’t remember my name, they refer to me as “the deaf one,” and everyone instantly knows it’s me. It’s never “the writer,” “the professor,” “the triathlete” or even “the one with the brown hair.” I would kill to be “the one with the brown hair.” But no, it’s “the deaf one.” That is the quickest point of reference. To the world, that’s who I am.
And for most people, interacting with “the deaf one” is a thing: As soon as they realize my accent is from Deaflandia, and not Ukraine, their whole demeanor changes. They talk loudly and slowly, with made-up sign language and the grossly simplistic language meant for a cognitive disability rather than a hearing one. At a faculty party one year, a colleague’s spouse asked which professor was my husband.
“Actually,” I said proudly, “I’m the professor.”
“Oh,” she smiled, shifting to a slower, exaggerated speech pattern: “That’s wonderful! They let someone like you join the department!”
Let others see that you are so much more than the simple category they put you in. Go forth and be awesome.
And then there are the questions. There are so many questions: Can you hear what I’m saying? (I cannot.) Do you know sign language? (I do not.) Then how do you communicate? (What do you think we’re doing right now?)
And yet, for two years, not a single one of my colleagues knew me as “the deaf one.” I wrote a whole book, went through the painstaking editorial process and developed a plan for the launch. Then I got an email from my publicist, asking if I was available to call in to a podcast to do an interview about the book.
Oh. Heh. About that…
Isn’t modern technology amazing? These days, almost every conversation takes place via keyboard or touchscreen, and no one really thinks to dial a phone anymore. Think about the last five people you emailed. Can you recall the sound of their voice? Have you even heard the sound of their voice? Probably not. And I’d venture to guess that’s not the only thing missing in your mental picture. What else don’t you know about the people behind that email address?
I didn’t hide my deafness from the people I worked with. I’m not clever enough for that, and honestly, that level of surreptitiousness just sounds exhausting. No, the reason no one knew I was deaf is that it never came up. It wasn’t relevant to the book, no one ever asked me to give them a call and there are few reasons for in-person meetings in the publishing world. Until the podcast came up, it just never crossed my mind.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being “the deaf one,” it’s that if I don’t make it a thing, neither will most people. I simply carry on, and when I do, they eventually see me as Susan Lacke.
You see, you may know me as “the deaf one,” but I know myself as Susan Lacke. I’m a writer, a professor, a triathlete and so much more. My hearing aid is just as much a part of me as a kneecap or fingernail—I don’t think about them very much, much less talk about them. Do I need to inform you of my dry cuticles, too?
Chances are you’ve got something, too: your gender, the fact that you didn’t go to college, having a certain last name, not having a certain last name, a birthmark on your face. Whatever it is, people know you as “the ______ one.” It’s easy to believe that the thing people notice is the thing that defines us.
And yet it’s not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being “the deaf one,” it’s that if I don’t make it a thing, neither will most people. I simply carry on, and when I do, they eventually see me as Susan Lacke. (Oh, by the way, Susan’s deaf. See? It’s a footnote, not a headline.)
The thing that people notice is not the thing that defines you. Carry on with your footnote, and let others see that you are so much more than the simple category they put you in. Go forth and be awesome.
And when you do, let me know. I can’t wait to hear all about it. Via email, of course.