How deaf is she?
How much can he talk?
Is she, like, DEAF-deaf?
Oh, so she’s not like, you know, full deaf.
So she’s handicapped too?
Those are things I hear far more often than I would like. My students can usually tell when someone is asking a question like this. For one, most of my students are not “full deaf,” and so they occasionally overhear conversations. Also, my students are all watchers. They have to be. They miss out on a lot of incidental information with their levels of hearing loss, so they are hyper-vigilant when it comes to visual information. If they see adults speaking in hushed tones, they assume the adults are talking about them. When visitors come to the classroom and pepper me with questions, my kids assume the questions are about them. To be honest, it’s a safe assumption.
I answer these questions carefully. And transparently. I sign. I use careful phrasing. Elsa uses hearing aids and prefers to use sign and speech. Taz uses a CI and depends heavily on sign. TLK is trilingual, and he uses whichever modality best fits the situation; however, he is always conscientious of how his peers communicate. When the visitors realize I am going to include my students in the conversation, the questions become less intrusive.* But let’s face it: it’s really rude to talk about people in front of them. Even if I’m phrasing carefully and making sure the students are aware of the conversation, I should be inviting them in to the conversation.
I work at a state school for the deaf and blind; students have to meet specific requirements to qualify for enrollment, and their home district must refer them to us. We are a public school, though, even though we are funded differently than a typical public school. I say all that to say this: we run into sticky situations where it is a battle to “prove” that a student deserves placement in our school. We have to demonstrate that a student would be best served by a specialized program, that they would benefit from a visual environment, sign language, and deaf peers. At the end of the day, we serve kids based on their needs rather than the severity of their diagnosis.
It gets old.
One of my students is self-conscious about her voice. She only uses it with certain people. A staff member who is only on campus part time overheard her say something to me one day and came rushing back in to my room. She talks?? I’ve never heard her speak! Say something! Tell me something! My student looked at me for guidance; I’m the one that makes the room safe, in her eyes. I explained that she uses her voice in some situations when she feels comfortable, but if she’s put on the spot she gets nervous. I wanted to say, Really? She’s not your party monkey! Alas, professionalism prevailed. And my student offered a confident, See you later!
My students don’t have to “prove” their disability. Yet. Right now, the grown-ups take care of that. We handle the Medicaid, the IEPs, the audiograms. They get to be kids. Sometimes they help me type the email or fill out the form to request an interpreter for a special event, but even that is pretty insulated–we have five of them on staff who are certified and vetted and familiar with all the kids. And the interpreters are always there, on time, prepared, ready to go.
The real world is a much harsher place. There will always be bureaucratic procedures that require them to prove their qualifications for Medicaid, SSI, Vocational Rehabilitation, an accessible parking permit, or psycho-social rehabilitation. As though red tape and paperwork were not enough, my students have to contend with their bodies and their personhood being considered up for public spectacle and discussion. There will always be people who read that list of services and feel disgust at what is available to my students, who believe they should keep their heads down and power through because they won’t get to be independent by depending on handouts.
Demonstrating need for services is one thing (and there are issues with that process, which I will not discuss at this point). But answering questions from strangers in the grocery store who are surprised that you can read labels? Or hearing adults talking about the fact that you might lack the ability to understand your baptism or the Holy Spirit (and to actually be able to understand that they are talking about this in front of you)?
It gets old.
In a benevolent society, in a truly inclusive society that actually adheres to equitable, democratic ideals, my students should never have to answer questions from strangers about how deaf they are, why they don’t speak, or if they “really” need an interpreter at the doctor. They should never have to worry about being called out at a concert for not standing up from their wheelchair when the performer decides everyone should stand up. They should never be given the side-eye when they park in accessible parking, they should never be given a condescending look when they ask for an allergy-free menu, and they should never have to explain themselves for wearing sunglasses indoors. They shouldn’t have interviewers ask to hold their eyeballs. If you are going to ask them to prove how disabled they are, I’m going to teach them to ask you to prove how much of a jerk you aren’t.
*A group from Utah State University’s Deaf Education program visits campus each fall and visits the classroom in 20-minute blocks. As these are future teachers of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, I always make sure they have plenty of time to ask questions about my job and about the kids. These college students sign, and I encourage them to talk to the students directly; my kids are more than thrilled to be the experts and are happy to share that they are only deaf on one side, that mom signs better than she used to, or that they run so hard their walker breaks at least once a week. My students are almost always more fluent signers than the college students are at this point in their undergraduate careers, which flips the power in the conversation. It’s all about power and privilege. Everything is about power and privilege. If you think it isn’t, it means you probably have the privilege.