I remember sitting in a parent-teacher conference with my mom and stepdad and my speech pathologist. I said to them “ She has an accent and I can’t understand her.” I think that was the first time I remember vocalizing that I was having trouble hearing in class. I was in sixth grade and my teacher’s name was Mrs. Cho, she was a Chinese American woman and had a high pitched voice.
I think up until that point, I was so worried about offending her that even when I made that statement out loud in the meeting I had a worrisome thought of being in trouble. I remember that even after the meeting I was still a little unsure of what I said and the consequences that would follow. Would I get in trouble or would Mrs. Cho be mad at me for saying I couldn’t understand her?
You see, the parent-teacher conference wasn’t a good one. My teacher set up a meeting for the purpose of discussing my poor performance in school. I was doing so bad that I resorted to hiding letters sent home to my parents because I didn’t want to get in trouble for having bad remarks. There was this one time when she had sent a note home asking for my parents to sign and I forged my mom’s signature. Anywho, at the parent-teacher meeting, I finally confessed to all in the room that I was lost and had no idea what was going on in the classroom.
I remember from that point on something changed in my classroom. They played around with the idea of moving me to another class, and then when they realized that wasn’t a viable option I went back to Mrs. Cho’s classroom. I got moved up to the very front and I started using an FM system. I got extra help in the resource class and more time on tests. That following semester, my report card showed a lot of improvement, and Mrs. Cho wrote a note home the last day of school saying how proud she was of me. I didn’t realize then that my hearing ability had a direct result on my learning experiences in school.
Flash forward 17 years later… oh God, I feel old! I was taken back to that classroom experience. The feeling of drowning and being underwater, struggling to hear, and having no access. Here I was 29 years old, in a graduate program, and my professor proceeded to begin his lecture, and the entire time I was struggling to hear. After the lecture ended, I contacted the Disability services at my school demanding that my process of receiving accommodation be accelerated because I couldn’t hear and it was hindering my ability to learn in class.
Now even though I was confident in my ability to advocate for myself and my needs at that moment, to be honest, I was a little sad. Because I felt like that little 6th-grade girl sitting in her elementary school classroom struggling to understand her Chinese American teacher. An immense amount of guilt flooded my mind because why was I still having challenges with the same thing. Is there something wrong with me? Do I have some underlying bias I may not be aware of for people who have foreign accents? No… that wasn’t it. I knew all of this was false because the issue had less to do with a person’s ethnic background or their ability to speak. There was a disconnect in language and processing making it difficult for me to receive what I was hearing and processing that into understandable speech.
Now I’m not a speech expert or audiologist, and so to confirm my own feelings, I reached out to some of my other hard of hearing/ deaf friends asking if they’ve experienced this weird thing. In which they all replied, “ Heck Yes!” I didn’t feel so bad after speaking with them. I guess it's something that all hard of hearing / deaf people face. In that moment of freaking out in class, I'm glad I was able to find solace in the community of my hearing impaired peers. Nevertheless, I still had a lot of questions, because I was still slightly unsettled at the fact that 20 years later I was still having this conversation. I think that part made me mostly sad.
In 2018, I made the decision to get a cochlear implant because I just wanted to know what it would be like to hear out of my right ear for the first time. And it was incredible! However, it didn’t solve all my hearing problems. It didn’t make the barriers of accessibility go away; matter of fact, it magnified them. I didn’t grow up in a world of accessibility. My parents had to do a lot of workarounds. Discussions about accessing resources, and hearing devices, and captioning were not revealed to my family and I. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I was able to connect to the deaf/ hard of hearing community and explore what accessibility meant to me as a woman with one ear.
I began to realize that the older I got the more tiresome it was in trying to and hear do workarounds all the time. I wanted to explore my options that would make my life a little bit easier. I also realized that there was a greater benefit of hearing through two ears rather than just one. I realized I could focus my energy on the actual content being shown rather than using a big chunk of my energy in trying to hear if I just used captions. Even now, on my phone, TV, computer all my settings are defaulted to captioning. But I definitely did not have access to this resource growing up.
For me, my condition was unique because I wasn’t considered to be a part of the deaf or hard of hearing community even though I had one ear. I wasn’t fully considered as being a part of the disabled community because I didn’t have the “typical” visible disabilities such as: being a wheelchair user, using crutches, or sign language and I didn’t have Developmental delay or Intellectual Disability either. I fell into the grey area of the intersections of them all. Some referred to me as “ medically fragile” but I’m not even sure if that was accurate because of the accessibility proponent.
Now, that is 2020 the disability cannon has expanded so much, and intersectionality even between disease and condition spaces is more acknowledge. I don’t feel quite as misplaced. However, my past experiences within these communities have proven to be a lot different than my present-day interactions. Such as asking for access even though I didn’t grow up with that knowledge base. Or asking to be a part of the community that initially I was shut out from. It seems like every day, I’m learning how to navigate these spaces and the intersectionality of it all: being black, being a woman, and living with a disability and chronic illness.