Growing Up Deaf in the Public School System

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Imagine being the only deaf member in your family. How do you find a way to communicate if no one knows sign language? In my case, I learned how to speak and lip read. From the time of my diagnosis, at age four, this was my way of adapting to the world at large, and especially at home. But life at home was much easier than being at school.

After being mainstreamed in fourth grade, I became isolated. I knew I wasn’t like the other kids so I tried my darndest to blend in. It wasn’t easy making friends, but I befriended Doug, who was really sweet and patient when communicating with me. When he smiled and laughed at me, I couldn’t see his eyes, and that made me laugh. When I broke my left wrist from playing on the rings (holy hell, that hurt), I got a kick out of striking Doug on the arm with my cast. I might not have really understood him but that didn’t seem to matter.

Doug’s kindness was important to me because I was bullied relentlessly by the other deaf students. Even though I was able to communicate with them, it wasn’t good enough. If you think they accepted me as one of their own, you’re wrong. In fact, they were even worse bullies than the hearing kids. One day, they’d pretend to be my friend and throw around my shoulders the warmth blanket of their friendship and the next day, they’d shun me, signing the word “hate,” all behind the teacher’s back so she never knew what was going on. It didn’t occur to me to talk to the teacher about it.

By junior high school, I became depressed. I so dreaded going to school that I would vomit every morning. It became so that my parents became concerned. Mama, being a kindergarten teacher, would sit with me in the morning and write down goals for the day, like “Today, I will make a new friend” written out on a large index card. But my depression continued, unabated. Because I feared the large crowds outside during lunchtime and didn’t feel safe being alone, I would eat lunch in the restroom (yes, gross) and then stay in the library until the bell rang.

I didn’t know it at the time but I suffered from communication fatigue. Ian Noon’s words almost made me weep; I always felt guilty because I thought my weariness was because I wasn’t trying my best to earn good grades (I was an average student overall but in literature and the social sciences, I was well above average) and because I was lazy. The thought of being lazy just made me feel even guiltier. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I could finally understand that from the time of my diagnosis, my education was not going to be “complete,” because I did not have the full access I needed. It was as if intensive speech therapy and itinerant teachers were more important than having a sign language interpreter in my classes. The toughest work, of understanding and making sense of the overload of information, was all up to me to decipher.  

As Mr. Noon says, “We can change the world. But we might need a nap and a cuppa tea every once in a while, so don’t judge us.”



About Author

Juana F.

Somewhere in Southern California, Juana grew up in a home filled with books. In high school, her father would bring home “heavy” books about the political climate in Central America (he was a university professor). Her childhood was spent playing outdoors and reading in her bedroom, where she spent a large chunk of her time and where she felt most comfortable. A proofreader and copy editor by trade, Juana can annoy people with her incessant questions. She still dreams of following in the footsteps of the inimitable Studs Terkel.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this insightful post. One doesn’t think that other kids with the same disability would be even worse bullies, but it does happen, unfortunately. Persons with disabilities are pretty much like everyone else, and that means some are cruel and others will do cruel things to gain the approval of those who have power. Even though I’ve never been bullied by fellow Aspies, I’ve also seen bullying behavior among people in Asperger’s/autism support groups.

  2. Thank you for your input, Lyn. I remember my shock when I was in school; I really thought I’d find some comradely understanding among my peers. Now, of course, I understand anyone is capable of being a bully. In fact, I bullied a couple of kids myself, especially this girl named Holly who had a physical disability and also severe asthma. I still feel guilty about causing her an asthma attack.

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