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The Progressive Media Project November 27, 2001

Welcome to Deafland
By Lisa A. Goldstein


Someone overheard me one day and asked if I was from England.

"No, I'm from Buffalo," I said.

"Come on really!"

"Fine. I'm from Deafland." Silence. "I speak like this because I'm deaf, not because I have a foreign accent."

Even though I've lived in America nearly all my life, feeling like a foreigner is nothing new to me. Dec. 3 is International Day of Disabled Persons, and it's a good time to stop treating disabled people as strangers.

Usually when someone realizes that I'm deaf, they get flustered. Some people feel that because they don't know sign language, communication with me will be impossible. Or if they know sign, they try out what they know.

But not all deaf people sign. In fact, I know very little. I was raised to lip-read and speak. My parents wanted me to be independent in society. And they're not the only ones who have made that decision: A 1999-2000 study by the Gallaudet Research Institute found that 44 percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing students were taught primarily through speech and lip reading. The assumption that deaf people use sign language is a stereotype that persists because people who use sign language are much more visible.

When I went to a theater that showed open-captioned movies, I asked, using my voice, if the movie that day was captioned. The employee signed her answer, but I had to shrug and ask again because I had no idea what she was saying.

People make other false assumptions about me. One of my middle-school teachers presumed that I was going to Gallaudet, a liberal-arts college for the deaf in Washington, D.C. I was taken aback because I thought that of all people he would realize I didn't need to limit myself to that option. After all, I attended the public-school system from kindergarten through high school.

Even though Americans still hold some misguided stereotypes, I feel lucky to live in a country that has civil-rights protections for people with disabilities.

Europe is a different story entirely. When I studied abroad in England, not only did I not pick up an English accent, but I was appalled at the lack of awareness and education regarding the disabled.

One man called me a "stupid little girl" and refused to sit next to me during a show because he thought my friend and I were talking. What he didn't realize was that she was oral-interpreting for me without using her voice. When we tried to explain, he refused to listen.

A woman sitting behind me in the third row at another show informed me that my little key chain flashlight (which I used discreetly to follow along with the script) was disturbing the actors. Her telepathy must be limited since she didn't realize I am deaf. After finding out, she gave me a box of chocolates at intermission. Pity has its rewards, but I'd rather do without.

Why does being different have to be so difficult? Every one of us has something that sets us apart; it's what makes us individuals. I constantly have to challenge people's perceptions, but it's worth it. Otherwise I'd be stuck in Deafland with an English accent.

Lisa A. Goldstein is a reporter and a free-lance journalist. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.



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