Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence

ASL performance of Rachel Platten's "Fight Song"

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is being lauded for showcasing deaf talent and representation in its most recent episode, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Silence.” But as is typical for the medium, it was a biased, unrealistic portrayal.

If you’re hearing and watched the ninth episode this season – which aired April 6, 2020 – you likely recognized the song as soon as the instrumental began and maybe even remembered some of the lyrics. If you’re deaf and know ASL, you knew what the characters were “singing.”

Yes, the sign language-only performance of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” without lyrics or subtitles was dramatic and moving, and it’s great that actual deaf people were playing deaf people. But the fact is, the media gravitates toward American Sign Language, or ASL, because it’s so visual.

But if you’re deaf like me, raised to lipread and speak, you were completely out of the loop. How’s that for irony? 

When I looked up the lyrics, they added an extra dimension to the performance. “Can you hear my voice this time? This is my fight song…”

Well, this is my fight song. 

In the episode, Zoey’s father’s caregiver Howie’s daughter (you follow?) Abigail is deaf. When she visits Zoey at her workplace, Zoey’s colleague conveniently knows sign language and is able to interpret (otherwise they would have had to resort to cruder methods). About her dad, she signs, “Ever since I was little, he’s always tried to shelter me from the world and make me better, whether it was cochlear implants, hearing aids, or speech therapy. But when nothing fixed me, he was devastated.” 

She adds, “He always made me feel like something was wrong with me. Then I went to college and met people who didn’t view their deafness as a weakness.”

I know parents like Howie exist. Thankfully, I know many more parents who are like mine. I was accepted, raised to be independent in society, and never made to feel like I was broken or needed to be fixed. 

Since my congenital deafness was diagnosed at 14 months of age, I’ve worn hearing aids. As an adult, I got a cochlear implant, so now I have one of each. I had daily speech therapy from my diagnosis through high school. 

Deaf Culture activists shy away from what they call a medical model of deafness, or reinforcing limitations rather than abilities. They think this perspective emphasizes the “loss” of hearing and strives to make the person be “normal.” This philosophy – which they associate with someone like me — is so far from my reality, it’s laughable. Even with my cochlear implant and hearing aid, I’m deaf. I still can’t appreciate music or understand what’s said on the phone. I’m reminded of my limitations every single day. But because of my parents and teachers, I’ve been able to reach my full potential. I would have had more limitations had I not been taught to lipread and speak.

Unfortunately, viewers who don’t know much about hearing loss wouldn’t know that people like me exist. In fact, 90 percent of children who are deaf are born to hearing parents, the vast majority of whom don’t know ASL – just like the rest of the world. In a family report of primary communication modality, the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management found that 49 percent of families use listening and spoken language only, while only 3 percent use ASL only. The other percentages involve various combinations.

With advances like cochlear implants, listening and spoken language outcomes are even brighter – especially if implanted by age one. Kids are on par with their hearing peers when it comes to language, and don’t have the limitations older folks like me do.

The struggle between Howie and Abigail is that he’s scared to let her make her own choices and venture out into the world. Perhaps if he had given Abigail the right tools, he wouldn’t feel this way.

A deaf friend of mine who is an audiologist echoed my thoughts when she complained about the episode: “Just once, can we just have a TV show with someone who is deaf, wears CIs or hearing aids, and is happy to be able to speak? I am so tired of TV and movies playing into the same old tropes. We can’t keep feeling like we’re in the 1960s. The d/Deaf community is so diverse and it’s sad that we always get just one viewpoint.”

Can you hear my voice this time?

Bumper Stickers

I never thought I’d have a car covered in bumper stickers. I don’t…yet. While I have five, I don’t own a stick figure family or the annoying “MY KID’S AN HONOR STUDENT.” You’re welcome.

Years ago, my husband and I displayed stickers from our respective universities on one car’s side windows. Our other car had the HRC logo on a back passenger window. We were trying to be unassuming.

Then the 2016 election happened. And I no longer gave a shit.

I know putting a bumper sticker on my car isn’t going to change minds. But it makes me feel like I’m doing SOMETHING. Even if it’s just announcing to the world that I’m not happy with the current regime.

Think about it. There’s something about a captive audience. You’re waiting at the the light and have to keep an eye on the car in front of you. If the message is succinct, it’ll be seen regardless. Like the one I have on my back bumper that says “RESIST.”

Move On is where I’ve gotten most (or all?) of my stickers. And they’re free! Every once in a while, I’ll get an email about a new sticker. Since I’m often on my computer, I’m able submit my request immediately before stock runs out.

One of my favorites is the one that quotes Michelle Obama: “WE NEED AN ADULT IN THE White House.” I have yet to see that on another car, which makes mine even more special.

My BLUE WAVE 2018 car magnet will hopefully be replaced by BLUE WAVE 2020 (get on that please, people!) and/or one that has the Democratic candidate’s name on it. As soon as we know who that person is, you can bet I’ll have him/her represented!

I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of people who aren’t happy with my statements, but again, I don’t give a shit. They show my support for basic human decency, for a world that’s going up in flames (literally). And it’s always rewarding when strangers express their solidarity. I even had someone ring my doorbell a few months ago just to tell me that she’d seen my car around the neighborhood. She told herself she had to meet the person who had such great stickers. We talked about volunteering for organizations like the League of Women Voters and our shared hope that our efforts will prove fruitful.

Then today, while I was putting groceries in my trunk, a stranger approached me with the “SPREAD KINDNESS BUILD COMMUNITY” magnet. She gave it to me, saying she liked my stickers and found this magnet in Virginia. She wanted me to add it to my collection, and gave me a happy thumbs up as I drove away.

Of course, I don’t put anything permanent on my car. If it’s a sticker, it’s vinyl, the kind that’s easily removable. Otherwise, it’s a car magnet, which comes right off. Hopefully after the 2020 election, I can remove Michelle’s quote. By then, my daughter will be a college student; we can display some college spirit. I’d much rather do that than have to worry about the fate of our country.

Seriously — the news is so demoralizing these days. It’s always reassuring to know that we’re not alone in this fight.

ASL classes

A journalist contacted me recently, asking if he could get my perspective as a deaf journalist about the news media’s coverage of the deaf community.

“For the interview, we could video chat and use Google docs to do a written interview,” he wrote. “I’m also learning ASL but I don’t know enough to conduct an interview in sign just yet.”

How did he think the video chat would work?!

When I responded, I explained that the topic was complex because there are different deaf communities, of which many aren’t aware. I also told him I don’t know ASL, if that was any indication.

He said in his ASL class, a large aspect of the curriculum is learning about deaf culture and the deaf community, which he’s found fascinating. “Do you use a different signing language?” he asked. “I was not aware there were others used in the US.”

I don’t know how many classes he’s had so far, but there’s a disconnect because ASL stands for American Sign Language. As in, the only one used in the US. If you go to another country, you’re shit out of luck.

In my next email to him, I told him that ASL classes focus on Deaf Culture, are inherently biased, and often promulgate false information. The deaf community is actually comprised of two separate communities – the Deaf community and the deaf community, or as some refer to it, the speaking deaf community.

“That you automatically assumed that I sign, even if it’s not ASL, is a perfect example,” I wrote. “ASL is American Sign Language. There are deaf people who sign and many of us who don’t. People automatically assume I sign just because I’m deaf, but I was raised to speak and read lips. I have many friends who had auditory-verbal therapy, which means they can hear/understand without lipreading.”

To his credit, he said he hoped I didn’t find his assumptions offensive. “My teacher does exactly as you said many ASL teachers do, which is propagate the idea that all deaf people sign,” he added. “My professor actually tells us that deaf people prefer ASL to learning to speak and lipread, which is clearly not true. I apologize for automatically categorizing you as someone who uses visual language.” He said if he hadn’t offended me, he still wanted to send me some questions. I said ok.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with the ramifications of ASL classes. Sure, it’s in the teachers’ best interests to make it sound like more people use ASL. But all teachers have a responsibility to be accurate. Part of the problem lies within Deaf Culture, unfortunately; threatened by the advent of technology like cochlear implants, and the decreasing numbers of people who sign, they believe in the propaganda.

In this kind of situation, I always think about parents of a newly diagnosed deaf child. If they’ve taken an ASL class or know someone who has, they won’t realize all the options available to them. How can you truly make the best choice for your family in this case? Keep in mind, 90% of all children born deaf have hearing parents. If parents choose cochlear implants and oral education, then the child can be part of the family’s culture and community. When they’re raised with sign, they are effectively shut off from many members of their family. I’m part of a deaf community too, just not the capital-D Deaf community.

This is why, as a deaf journalist, I feel a responsibility to speak out when I see misconceptions and misinformation about deafness. They provoke in me such a visceral reaction, and I’m in a unique position to educate.

The journalist learning ASL sure got a lot more than he bargained for when he contacted me!

The Princess and the…alarm clock?

BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ!

One advantage to being deaf is that when I take my cochlear implant and hearing aid off, I can’t hear a damn thing. On the flip side, this means I can’t hear an alarm clock.

This is when having a hearing husband comes in handy! Literally. A gentle nudge by my partner is the best way to wake up. Hear THAT, Folgers?

But what if he’s out of town or I am? Then it’s time to bring out my special alarm clock that vibrates. This is the one I used to have; it clipped onto my pillow case and worked great. It lasted a long time before it broke and isn’t made anymore.

Luckily one of my deaf friends had asked the hive mind for a portable alarm clock recommendation. I ended up purchasing this one: It has no clip, the settings in minuscule print, and even the vibration is annoying. Instead of vibrating at five second intervals, it goes off every second.

Every. Second.

BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ!

Let me tell you, this is NOT a pleasant way to wake up. In fact, when I need to use it, for some reason I can’t sleep at all. Even if I’m super duper tired. Like my body is rebelling: “That damn clock! We’ll wake you up naturally by not letting you sleep at all!”

Is this the deaf version of The Princess and the Pea?

I read; I travel; I become – Derek Walcott

If you ever see me without a book nearby, there’s something wrong – like my eyes have been gouged out or I’ve turned into a zombie.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, sometimes too much so. I remember on a family trip in California as a kid, we stopped in San Luis Obispo. My parents encouraged my sister and I to get out of the car and explore the town with them, but I refused. I actually stayed in the car to read my book. Grown up me is appalled. Even I know there are limits.

One of my fears is having nothing to read. I’m a fast reader but can’t always predict when I’ll have the time to finish a book due to life getting in the way – which makes it hard to know how many I need. I used to bring a bag full of books when driving somewhere for vacation and still worried I’d run out. If I was flying, it was a real struggle deciding how many books to squeeze in the suitcase.

Now I have a Kindle. It’s seriously changed my life.

Don’t get me wrong; I still love — and in fact, prefer — an actual book. There’s something about turning paper pages and feeling the weight of the printed word in my hands.

But now when I travel, I’m not as stressed. Whether it’s a library book, freebie, or one I’ve purchased, I have a whole list of them waiting to be opened. If I run out, I just have to find WiFi and instantly download more.

Lately I’ve also been reading more books on my Kindle even when I’m not traveling. It’s so easy to carry around wherever I go; I don’t have to worry about the Kindle fitting in or weighing down my purse. I especially appreciate having it handy during waits.

This is on my mind as I prepare for an upcoming trip. I currently have 11 books downloaded waiting to be read, which means I’ll have room for, what, three pairs of shoes?