Please Don't Think My Deafness Is My Identity

I don't want to be known as The Deaf Girl.

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"This is Kelly — she's deaf," my high school friend would say as she introduced me to people. We became friends the day I showed up in her junior high homeroom class because she had taught herself sign language for fun. I knew some sign language so I became her signing buddy.

"Oh, this is my sister. She's deaf," my older brother would reluctantly say as he introduced me to his friends. It took some convincing to get one of his friends to date me later on — I'm still not sure if it was more because I was his friend's sister or because I was his friend's deaf sister.

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And then there was the guy who said, "Oh, do you sign? Do you have a cochlear implant?" upon meeting me for the first time and hearing me say a single sentence.

For me, my hearing loss is just an afterthought. For many people, it's the first thing they know about me — sometimes even before they know my name. I don't wear hearing aids or a cochlear implant; I do, however, have a noticeable deaf accent that's impossible to hide. Many people don't recognize it for what it is and simply want to know where I'm from. Other people politely say nothing, but a few will bring it up immediately.

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Reactions about my hearing loss usually fall into two camps: sympathy or excitement. I'm not sure which is more uncomfortable for me. Hushed condolences are unnecessary, because my hearing loss is mostly just an extreme annoyance that I've dealt with since I was 5 years old. If I allow others to feel sorry for me, it's a slippery slope to feeling sorry for myself.

A surprising number of people insist on congratulating me on my disability.

On the other hand, a surprising number of people insist on congratulating me on my disability ("Are you deaf? That's so awesome!") and then seem confused when I don't mirror their excitement. While I think it's wonderful that some people can find a sense of self and meaning in their Deaf identity, I've never been entirely deaf or part of the Deaf community. I went to mainstream schools and have almost always been surrounded by hearing people. In that context, my hearing loss has always been a roadblock for me to overcome, not something to celebrate.

The nice thing about growing up with the Internet when you have a disability is that it makes it much easier to control how the world (or at least, the online world) sees you. There's no communication barrier for me online, and I can bring up my hearing loss when I feel comfortable, instead of immediately being outed by my accent or a well-meaning friend.

When I started dating online for the first time a few months ago, it was liberating. In the past, all of my boyfriends knew me as the deaf girl first, and then they eventually got to know the real me: my interests, my personality, my sense of humor. This was the first time in my life that I was able to let people see those parts of me first and my disability later.

I knew I found someone special when we were talking about my hearing loss late one night. I was trying to explain the complexities of my hearing loss but gave up, offering the old cliche: "I could write a book about it."

"A lot of people say that," he replied, "but you actually could do it if you wanted to, being a writer and all."

"Yeah, except I wouldn't want to write a book about my hearing," I said. "Anything but that, because I don't want…"

"...You don't want that to be your whole identity," he finished for me.

I smiled at him, relieved that I finally found someone who would never introduce me as the deaf girl.

"Exactly."

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