There is an illusion that there are separate worlds: the Deaf and Hearing Worlds, the Civilized and Natural Worlds. While technology helps us advance, our connection and integration with nature may get us further in life.
NAVIGATING AS A DEAF PERSON WITH SEVERAL IDENTITIES:
Being born and growing up in what I thought of as two worlds, I have always considered myself as a bridge. I was raised bilingually in two different cultures- Deaf and Hearing. I also used hearing technology, a device called the cochlear implant, to navigate between these cultures. Rather than belonging in one world, I sort of felt like a “bridge” or someone “in between”. The feeling of “in between” also surfaced when I became a Forest and Nature Therapy guide, understanding both the human and the more-than-human world.
I used to think the world was binary, black and white, however for the past 5 years, I’ve been learning that there are multiple truths. The realization that my worlds were not separate has influenced my identities: from bilingual to multilingual, from human to cyborg, from straight to pansexual, from monogamous to polyamorous, from living in two homes, to becoming a nomad. This story explains how this all came to be. I also share these stories from a linguistic and cultural perspective because my academic background and training focuses on the phenomenon of being bilingual and bicultural.
When people ask me about my upbringing, and learn of my journey with the cochlear implant I am usually asked questions like: How do you handle all these modalities, technologies, and languages? Don’t you get confused? Overwhelmed? I didn’t have an answer for all this- it was just something I morphed into growing up. Being on the margins, not quite understanding verbal language, I relied on my survival instinct, observing from different viewpoints and meeting others who were on a similar path.
Recently, my childhood pediatrician asked me to write an article about my experience for a medical journal, He had helped my family navigate choices for dealing with my deafness and was aware of my life story but wanted to better understand my recent journey from being hearing, to becoming deaf, then getting the cochlear implant, then navigating in between two worlds. At first, I was resistant because the discussion around cochlear implants is highly politicized and I was unsure of getting myself into it. The more I reflected on my journey and made connections between my experiences and processes in the natural world, the more I became open to sharing.
WORLDS OF SOUND AND SILENCE
At the age of 3, my world became silent when I became deaf as a result of spinal meningitis. My family and I started learning sign language together, but they also explored ways to help me regain my hearing. This medicalization of deafness is very common, under the guidance of doctors and parents who want the best for their child. Naturally, parents want their child to be like them, to speak their language and to navigate the world together as a family. Sign language is something that wasn’t as accessible in my hometown, but my mother learned anyway. My father, however, was resistant- still hung up on the idea that perhaps I would regain my hearing. In 1990, the FDA approved cochlear implantation in young children.
At the age of 6, I got the cochlear implant and got some of my hearing back. I could participate in spoken conversations, hear music, laughter, birds, etc. But I also needed the visual language in which I had learned and relied on during my formative years. My mother, who felt that sign language was too special to give up, tried to abide by the doctor’s advice that I should rely solely on the implant in order to learn to speak. She watched me suffer as specialists tried to communicate with me without the benefit of sign. Even though I could hear some words and sounds, I was not given any visuals; the therapist would even completely cover her own mouth. I became agitated as my mother tried to get the audiologist to understand that I was not misbehaving; I was lacking the visual support that I obviously needed. Needless to say, she then allowed me to communicate using whatever modality that I felt helpful. I never stopped signing nor did I stop wearing my implant. I obviously needed and wanted both.
These early years in the educational system were not without struggle; I had a love/hate relationship with my cochlear implant. During my early teens, I took it off to “look normal” and not like a cyborg with a string attached to my brain. But I put it on when I wanted to listen to music with my best friends. When the processor became smaller and closer to looking like a “hearing aid” (there was no bulky box and string anymore- it was just behind the ear), I wore it more. I was also entering a time of my life where I wanted to be around those “like me”- meaning deaf kids. Transferring to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in 10th grade, I wore my implant all the time because I blended in well with other deaf kids, who like me, had hearing aids and cochlear implants.
Fast forward to age 20, when PBS interviewed me in the documentary, History Through Deaf Eyes, explaining my experience with both worlds. This was during my college years at Gallaudet University, where I was becoming more and more enculturated in Deaf culture and my Deaf identity flourished. I received a Master’s degree in Deaf Cultural Studies, married a CODA from a Deaf family, I worked as a teacher at a Deaf school. The field of Deaf studies takes a cultural perspective on ways of being, living, navigating as Deaf people among whom natural, visual languages emerged.
The field of Deaf Studies has been changing in response to the cultural and linguistic identity politics within it. For a long time, the field as a whole rejected the idea of categorizing deafness as a disability. Cochlear implants were seen as a reminder that those who wore them were not embracing our “deafhood”. Thus there was resistance to the technology. For a long time, the Deaf community considered cochlear implants to be “cultural genocide”. Even with a cochlear implant, I was able to prove my membership in the community by enculturating and embracing my Deaf identity, but still I was torn having to choose sides.
Five years ago, my life shifted when I became burnt out from my high technology, 9-5pm job and the stress of my job caused my mental health to decline. My personal life was also in chaos. Being recently divorced and having downsized to a more minimalist lifestyle, I searched for healing. I realized that I was limiting myself to my comfort zone: the signing space of the Deaf community. I realized that in my comfort zone, access to resources was scarce. I began searching for healing modalities beyond traditional talk therapy (ie. counseling in an office). I became drawn to other worlds, particularly the natural world. I became inquisitive and wanted to learn about what existed outside the Deaf world. I wanted to build tiny houses, convert school buses, travel to intentional communities, and explore multiple worlds that exist outside the institutionalized and medicalized system. Those worlds were not entirely accessible because not everyone spoke sign language, so I had to use the cochlear implant and other technology to connect. Nevertheless, I ventured to them, I became a certified Nature and Forest Therapy guide.
TWO WORLDS: IS THERE SUCH A THING?
Disability is a social construction and has often come with labels, diagnoses, and compartmentalizations. Social Darwinism and concepts around the “survival of the fittest'' have caused disability to be seen as undesirable. According to this worldview, the further away from being disabled, the better you are. On a similar scientific path, Nature has been scientifically categorized and sometimes regarded as distant, otherworldly, grotesque, and wild. We have both romanticized and distanced ourselves from these concepts.
However, disability is not inherently negative. Just like the wild natural world is not a negative thing. It is our disconnection from nature that makes it seem that way. Ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world is lacking.Richard Louv, the author of Last Child of the Woods, calls this human disconnection as having “nature deficit disorder”. This disorder results from the diminished use of the senses and leads to attention difficulties and higher rates of emotional-physical illness. In his book, Louv explains that we do not necessarily need to abandon our technologies, but to have balance of both. He declared that the future belongs to those who have skills in both:
“The future will belong to the nature-smart — those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world, and who balance the virtual with the real. The more hightech we become, the more nature we need.” — Richard Louv
In the tamed, civilized world, we render those who are experts at technology as successful. We applaud those who use technology. This is the case for the world outside the signing Deaf community, where Deaf folks who can speak well and hear well as a result of technology are considered “successful”. In a similar way, in the natural world, we applaud those who can start a fire with their bare hands or those who could identify edible mushrooms.
Growing up, I did not view myself as disabled, but I knew I was different. The medical system implied that I needed to be “fixed”. Cochlear implants became a part of my life because of that. In addition to my parents' motivation to give me more access to the world, I had a natural desire to fit in, to belong. The device itself was not as invasive as the pressure I got from society that I needed it to help me hear. All my life, I have gotten questions or comments that reinforce that notion:
“What is your life like as a Deaf person?” “Oh that’s so brave that you’re traveling alone.” I also get this: “I’m sorry I don’t sign. Can you read lips?“ “You speak well for a deaf person.” “How much can you hear?”
Yes. I am Deaf. Yes, I can hear some with my cochlear implant. I can read some lips. But I am wary of admitting these things, giving someone the comfort of speaking in their language while I bear the brunt of the interaction, struggling to understand them. Sometimes when I don’t want to be botheredI tell them, “No, I don’t read lips. Can you please write?” Or, “Can you speak in my iPhone app that translates voice to text?”
Sign language, on the other hand, is 100% accessible and natural to me. My whole body relaxes when I see sign language. Yes, it would be wonderful if everyone learned and used sign language.
Similarly, out in Nature there is absolutely no stress or pressure to fit in. I can take a walk deep in the woods or enjoy the ocean waves without feeling I need to hear. I can totally relax. When I walk into the city, or in a house full of hearing people; I instantly scramble for my cochlear implant. Society expects me to hear so I can accommodate them. On the road, traveling as a nomad I find benefit in both silence and sound. Most of the time, I drive with my implant off but I turn my processor on to listen to music to keep me awake. At times, I start singing along.
THERE IS POWER IN SILENCE
The realization that I was free and comfortable in the natural world prompted me to start my own business as a certified Nature and Forest Therapy guide. When I guide hearing people in the forest or a park, I notice they are nervous at first being guided by a Deaf person. After a while, the nervousness goes away when they realize there is a tremendous benefit to being guided in silence. For example, we were practicing a technique called earth-walking, being mindful of walking with the least impact on the earth. Normally our footsteps make sounds, but this “kissing the earth with your feet” was silent. We slowly walked in the forest for a good 10 minutes, stopping and starting conversations in sign language or gestures. We spotted a whitetail deer. Somebody gasped. Immediately a bunny hopped in the clearing and then birds flew away.
A hearing participant who was a local to this park remarked, “I’ve been to this park so many times, I’ve walked this exact trail so many times and I’m in awe because I never saw so many animals being this close.” Then I asked them why they thought this was the case. What was different then and now? I could tell it was a light bulb moment! There was a benefit to silence.
WHICH PILL TO CHOOSE?
Just as Morpheus in the Matrix offered Neo the choice between the red or blue pill, society has reinforced a binary view: I was asked to choose just one world, one language as a child. So which pill would I take? Would I choose to speak or to sign? Would I choose to wear the cochlear implant or not? Which world is better? The Deaf or the hearing? As it turns out, these worlds aren’t so separate. The concept of separateness is a problematic, white supremacist, colonizer concept I have been unraveling in my own life.
When I choose to embrace both of these parts of myself, I flourish. My life is richer because of the languages and cultures in it. I don’t have to choose between American Sign Language, English, Protactile, and Spanish. We already know about the importance of biodiversity in ecosystems.The same is true for language diversity. Neuroscience tells us that the brain, in fact, does better when exposed to more than one language. We used to think that language was tied to solely sound, but not anymore. And sign language has helped hearing babies communicate with their caregivers before they are physically able to speak.
So, it takes a collectivist approach, a village to raise a bilingual/multilingual human being. Yes, I use my cochlear implant. But I don’t use it all the time, and it’s not my only tool. It’s one of my many tools. It has more or less value to me depending on the context and my environment. I also have mixed methods- some speaking, some texting, some signing, etc. Sure, my cochlear implant and my ability to talk helped me, but beyond that, my inner drive and multiple ways of navigating the world have taken me to where I am now.
So, my suggestion for those who are trying to decide whether or not to get a cochlear implant is to consider the following questions: what would you use it for? Are you needing it to be accepted/valued in society? Do you rely on speech to understand your family, friends, co-workers, and other communities you belong to? Does your job rely on it? Take all of this into account.
So which pill to choose? I will answer: Why do I have to choose? I choose both because I am both. We should not have to choose whether to sign or to talk. Do I abandon my cochlear implant and other technologies? No. Do I abandon sign language and my Deaf identity? No. I am both. If you ask me if I chose the civilized world or the wild world, I say… I am in both- I am human and we are nature. The world isn’t binary. I am a bionic and multilingual Nature Therapy guide.
Just like the forest has multiple worlds and truths. There are multiple truths in almost everything. We are led to believe there is one truth. That there is one way, one path in being a successful Deaf person in a hearing world. That concept is an illusion. This is what I aim to do- connecting worlds and reminding us all that it is really one world. The deaf and hearing worlds. The wild, natural and the civilized world. All these “separate” worlds are really one. We all are connected. Mitakuye Oyasin.
We are not separate, nor independent. We are interdependent. We are a “beautiful mosaic of multiple cultures, identities, and sign languages.” - Carla García-Fernández
This blog was originally published in the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy blog site.
Article is available in Spanish.
Translation of article in American Sign Language is forthcoming.