“To thine own self, be true.” In my opinion, those were some of the greatest words Shakespeare wrote and serves as one of the strongest values I live by. There is no one more you than yourself on this planet and therefore I try to embrace who I am to the fullest. That, of course, includes embracing my deafness. Through learning to appreciate my identity as a deaf person, I learned significant life values that are important to all people, not just to those that are deaf and hard of hearing such as advocating for myself, surrounding myself with positive people and ultimately learning to find happiness and laughter on a daily basis. These three core values serve as my guiding stars on this journey called life.
1) Self-Advocacy and Self-Respect
If I there is one value my parents spent the most effort ingraining in me, it would be learning to advocate for myself. For as long as I can remember, my parents made me responsible for informing teachers, classmates, friends and even strangers about my deafness and taking the necessary actions to compensate for any information I may miss as a result. Naturally this became an incredibly valuable tool in school where I learned to sit in the front to ask the teacher to face the class when teaching, and to ask when I did not understand information.
However, advocating for myself became most valuable when it came to forming genuine friendships and respecting myself. Life offers everyone obstacles and I believe it is how we respond in tough situations that reveals the strength of our character. I do not have any memories of being bullied but friends and family members have told me schoolmates tried to. I think I never recognized the attempts as bullying because I always stopped the situation before it was allowed to escalate. If an insult or rude remark came from someone I did not know well, I knew not to take it personally because I recognized it in no manner reflected who I was.
A useful strategy I learned at an early age is to respond with “Why?” I often find if I ask this simple question a few times, the person who directed the insult often finds themselves at a loss for words. This question can be tweaked to fit the situation such as “Why would you say that?” or “Why would you ask that?” After I have asked this simple question a few times and recognized there was no constructive reasoning behind it, I usually say one simple statement that respects and advocates for myself, then walk away. This is a crucial skill not only for students with hearing loss, but for all children to learn when it comes to standing up for and respecting themselves.
A few times, I found myself in situations where I could not walk away, such as working with others on class projects. I used this circumstance as an opportunity to be playful. A particular situation I never forgot was being told to “shut up” by a classmate in middle school during a project when I was asking someone else to repeat what was being said. In this situation, I saw an opportunity to combine my deafness with what I refer to as the ‘wall strategy,’ which involves continuously repeating a single word or phrase in response regardless of what the other person is saying.
Every time this particular classmate made a negative comment to me, I would pretend I was not able to hear, responding with “What did you say? I am deaf and cannot always hear well.” To my amusement, my classmate would repeat louder and louder until the teacher came over to scold her. Fortunately she never bothered me again, and I believe this is because bullies often pick on victims they believe they can negatively affect or suppress. In her eyes, she believed I was not hearing any of her insults which therefore rendered them useless. Furthermore, she got in trouble in the process. I believe in the value of recognizing a potentially negative situation and turning it into a positive or humorous one.
2) Each Coin Has Two Sides
In many ways I have viewed my deafness as a blessing. It has forced me to surround myself with people who are kind, patient and willing to accept my deafness and repeat for me. There is no way I can be friends with people who are not willing to repeat information for me because I cannot be a part of their conversation. Therefore, my deafness has forced me to surround myself with positive people who accept me for exactly who I am and I am extremely grateful to have them in my life. Fortunately I have met many kind people who are more than happy to repeat what they said when I explain to them that I am deaf and cannot always hear well, especially in noisy environments. I often find that they are curious about my deafness and how my cochlear implant works. Furthermore, many seem to find it fascinating that I have a magnet in my head and that I can control my hearing by turning it on and off or adjusting the volume. In one or two circumstances, I have joked with strangers that it is an ear device for a spy organization and proceeded to walk away muttering “Agent Sparrow is on the move now.” I always found their shocked or amused expressions humorous. I strongly believe it is important to find humour in everyday situations where appropriate.
While I appreciate and welcome people’s interest in my deafness, I believe it is important that people always respect it and view me as an individual who happens to have a cochlear implant. I once met a classmate who was so overly enthusiastic about my deafness and ability to speak that he repeatedly asked to film me talking because he found it fascinating. His enthusiasm was akin to discovering a talking puppy. Anytime our paths crossed, I was quickly bombarded with questions and comments relating to my deafness, many of which implied my learning and speaking ability should be lower than that of people with typical hearing. I quickly recognized that in his eyes, I was viewed as a walking and talking deaf object. In our last encounter, I calmly but assertively told him “Everything you have done, I had the opportunity to do as well. I am an individual and a person first, please start treating me like one.” In addition to confronting him, I also recognized this was not a person I wanted to be around. Therefore I made sure to develop a polite but distant friendship with him. I appreciate people’s interest in my deafness, but I will not let myself or anyone decide that it is my entire identity.
3) Humour and Positivity
Ultimately, I believe many of the life values that being deaf has taught me are critical for people from all walks of life including people with typical hearing. How you view yourself is going to have a big impact on how others view you. The same goes for how you view your hearing loss. I have learned that how others respond to my deafness is often reflected in the example I set through my attitudes and actions. If I view deafness as a difficult obstacle that holds me back, I find that others will also see it as a hinderance.
However, I learned from an early age that it is easy to have fun with my unique trait of being deaf. Although it is called a disability, I frequently find myself benefiting from the advantages that being deaf offers me. My sister, who has acutely sharp hearing, has endured many sleepless nights and unpleasant mornings when construction disturbed the peaceful silence of the morning. I have one particularly fond memory of happily waking up late on a summer morning around 11 a.m. to find her lying on the living room sofa with her face scrunched between pillows, desperately trying to get more sleep. Apparently the noise from the construction in the apartment above ours had started roaring at 5:30 that morning. “I want you hearing…” she moaned between pillows. I smiled and took a photo of the moment which now serves as a humorous reminder on my wall to remain grateful for the advantages and fortunes I have.
The same scenario happened at my college where a new dorm was being built behind my dorm but I did not discover this until the end of the semester despite the fact that construction had started at 7 a.m. every morning that semester. As previously mentioned, I believe it is especially important to find laughter and humour in all aspects of my life including situations relating to my deafness.
I am especially grateful for my family. They taught me to advocate for myself from an early age which contributed enormously to the success I experienced in my academic and social life. Furthermore, through different situations they taught me the importance of laughter and staying positive regardless of the situation that unfolds before us. By recognizing how strongly, beautifully and positively they had affected my life, my parents went on to utilize the tools they gained as parents of a child with hearing loss and started the Children’s Hearing Foundation in Taiwan which has now helped thousands of children who are deaf and hard of hearing in Asia learn to listen and talk successfully. It is because of them, my friends and my extraordinary deafness that I have come to realize the importance of Shakespeare’s six short words.