LSA senior Tabitha Knofski says in the eyes of her classmates, her life is a tragedy.
Born deaf, the sounds trickle into Knofski’s ears once she fits on her hearing aids. But the devices can only go so far.
Unable to jot down all of her professor’s words, Knofski says she requires a student volunteer to act as her note taker. Communication with other students is also often frustrating since they sometimes speak either too fast or too softly. The labor of reading lips gradually tires out her eyes as well, she said.
In the end, Knofski says students often pity her, viewing her as a broken person, barred from living life normally.
Yet in Knofski’s eyes, people never notice the person existing behind what for her is not a tragic disability, but just another way of life. She said she not only views her life as equal to everyone else’s, but also cherishes her identity deeply.
“I have found something that I believe to be such a thing that hearing people do not have. It is a form of serenity that I find immeasurable in its value,” she said.
But people born deaf like Knofski say society’s pity forms the backdrop of the prejudice they face. To many deaf people, the good intentions behind this pity are only a myopic view that translates into hurt, isolation and ignorance toward their way of life.
Hard-of-hearing people like Knofski ask why they have to hear in order to be deemed normal, and why they can’t be viewed equally.
It may surprise many, but Knofski says, “Overall, I’d rather be completely deaf than completely hearing.”
Knofski said she knows it’s hard for the hearing community to comprehend that thought. Whenever someone thinks of the word “deaf,” they can’t help but imagine themselves cut off from the world, she said. But Knofski grew up with the silence, and she said it never has prevented her from living life to its fullest. Rather, Knofski said she would like to ask people to imagine what they might be missing out on by hearing.
“I agree that hearing and the things you can use it for is a wonderful gift. With my remaining hearing, I often get to experience those pleasures. But these beauties can be experienced through the eyes as much as the ears,” she said.
People from the deaf community emphasize things visually, said Paula Berwanger, a linguistics lecturer. Speech is not a possibility for most deaf people since many have never heard words before and cannot articulate them if they were to speak, she said.
“Spoken language is not a natural language for people who are born deaf,” she added.
Instead, sign language embodies their primary method of communication. In recent years, deaf people have often been referred to as a linguistic minority in the social sciences. But the language has not only functioned as a medium for them to communicate, but also has united many deaf people into a culture where their deafness is valued.
Despite their ability to communicate through signing, many deaf people’s lives have revolved around society’s norms on how to communicate.
From this alternative worldview that takes pride in their deafness, Rackham student Richard Eckert said he plans to argue in his dissertation that deafness is in fact an ethnicity. But Eckert, who is deaf, said the stereotype that deaf people are disabled has impeded people from viewing deafness as a form of identity.
“There is a built-in belief of superiority based upon physicality, and it is so deeply embedded that seldom does one think about it,” he added.
Present since the times of Alexander Graham Bell and his efforts to eugenically sterilize people born with deafness, the misconception of deaf people continues to permeate in the medical world, Eckert said. With the development of new hearing devices meant to treat their so-called disability, Eckert says the deaf community has become a victim to a society that does not tolerate its different way of life.
“Those in a dominant culture tend to take their values and beliefs for granted. Most hearing people simply assume that the deaf person must approach hearing culture and that the hearing culture has little need to approach deaf culture,” Eckert said.
It’s become an overbearing prejudice for Knofski which she said frustrates her relations with hearing people. Isolated from the other students in her classes, Knofski said she usually finds that her perceived disability acts as a social barrier.
“If I tell people to repeat what they say, they might do it once or twice. But the more I ask, the less people are willing to interact with me,” she said.
In addition, she said people are unwilling to spend the effort to communicate with her even though she wears hearing aids throughout the day. She added that she wished the roles were reversed, with hearing people forced to use sign language to communicate with her.
“Most of the time I wish to just throw out my hearing aids, because I already have a language I can use without having to do the extra work for everyone else,” she said.
In tandem, the mainstream media also bombards her with images of success stories of deaf people triumphing over their loss of hearing through medical breakthroughs, like cochlear implants which can dramatically improve a deaf person’s hearing.
Knofski sees the device as a solution for a person who became deaf through illness or injury, but never for her. She said she views medical research on ways to “cure” deafness as an attack on her identity that needs no treatment, although she added that not everyone in the deaf community adheres to the same belief.
But the sentiment to change her way of life overwhelms Knofski sometimes. She said she resists by constantly reminding herself, “This is how they are trying to make me feel. How do I actually feel?”
In spite of her own perseverance, Knofski says rather than determining her own identity, society seems to be determining it for her.
“My life is restricted in the current way of life, but it doesn’t have to be restricted. … They can pity us since they have justifiable reasons, which I don’t blame them for, since I understand those reasons. However, when they do feel that way and see us that way, there are consequences that affect deaf people and prevent our lives from being nonrestrictive,” she said.