I recently returned from my 19th AG Bell Convention. The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is an organization that has been a part of my life since 1980, when my parents discovered it after my diagnosis. Thank goodness they did, because it has had a huge positive impact on my life and many others.
My family attended every biennial convention — always held in a different city — and planned family trips around each location. Initially, the goal was to further our education by doing, like when we rode every type of transportation as we traveled from Portland, OR to San Francisco, CA. I still have vivid memories of sleeping on a train, or trying to, anyway. Now my parents tag along as I bring my husband and kids.
Even though my younger sister was deaf, there’s a lot to be said for meeting other speaking deaf peers. AG Bell’s mission of advocating independence through listening and talking is so important, especially when the critical language development window is concerned. The organization is comprised of professionals, parents, and deaf adults. Before email, we used to write letters back and forth. Now these long-time friends have become my family, and each convention I love picking up where we left off and meeting new faces.
After my sister died, we established an AG Bell scholarship fund in her name. Several conventions ago, we started using that money toward a Dena Goldstein Mixer, with the goal of having deaf teens interact with older deaf adults so we can act as mentors and support for one another. The social component of the conventions was Dena’s (and my) favorite, so this was a perfect fit.
This year’s mixer was the best yet. A few parents came with their kids, likely to ensure their attendance. I approached one family and found out they were attending their first convention. The teenager with hearing loss didn’t know anyone else and seemed shy. My friend Rachel — my oldest AG Bell friend, in fact — walked by, so I pulled her over to introduce them. After I explained this was her first convention, Rachel beckoned for her to follow, and brought her over to a table with other deaf teenagers. The next thing we knew, they were all talking animatedly.
The last day of the convention, a mother approached me after one of my sessions to thank me for the mixer. She couldn’t speak, she was so overcome. She explained that she had two deaf daughters. The older one is social and has done AG Bell’s Leadership Opportunities for Teens Program, or LOFT. Unfortunately, it was created after my time, so I couldn’t benefit. Among other things, it improves teens’ confidence and advocacy skills, and the groups become friends for life. The younger daughter has no friends and didn’t want to come to the convention or do LOFT. The mother practically dragged her to the mixer, where another teenager approached her daughter. This was life changing, the mother said, because the daughter was then forever texting her new friends about meeting up at the pool or for breakfast. She now wants to do LOFT and is like a whole new person. Needless to say, we were both crying during this conversation.
This is the point of the mixer and why we do it. This is why I attend conventions. As one of my friends said over the weekend, it’s hard work surviving in the hearing world. It truly recharges our batteries when we’re able to be in a fully accessible, understanding environment, with others who get it, and where we can truly be ourselves.