In a Perfect World
The Name Game
My husband was named after a great uncle, which makes me the wife of Tom Seaver. The jokes about his curve ball have gotten a bit stale. Principal Marilyn Manson’s name seemed harmless enough until a skinny, sepulchral rock star donned it for himself. Now she can’t sign a check at County Market without Clint Eastburn, the cashier, asking if she’s smashed any guitars lately. But then Clint has his own moniker issues, and frankly, so do we.
By which name are you known in the community of the deaf/Deaf/hearing impaired, hard of hearing, oralists/signers/Cuers/combiners, or those with unilateral or “permanent hearing loss”? My friend and deaf mentor Stephanie recalls her husband’s surprise at learning that he was “hearing” when he met her…shocked that the world could be categorized as “hearing” or “deaf”. The words we use to identify ourselves and our world are simultaneously simple and complicated with meaning, depending on the context. Some were chosen for us, some we choose ourselves, and some associations are just beyond our control.
The Power of Words
Two good friends of mine, Cami and Kylie, were recently in a conference panel discussion sharing their perspectives on parenting. One described her son as a typical little boy with all the normal soccer and french fry obsessions. She admitted that sometimes they forget he’s deaf—it’s not their primary reference, but just a facet of who he is. The other mom shared that theirs was a Deaf-first family. They have a proud sense of identification with Deaf culture and community, which they prefer to an apologetic sense of hearing “disability.” As I took this all in, I reflected on how right they both were in the evolution of my own understanding.
My initiation into this world of value-laden vocabulary began with an audiogram. The audiologist was obviously selecting her words very carefully as she explained test results that indicated our son, Dane, then 18 months old, did indeed have a hearing loss. She said the hearing loss was in the severe to profound range. She seemed to make a point of not saying deaf. Tom and I took that to mean that he could hear to some degree. We didn’t know the implications of profound hearing loss--which we are still discovering on so many levels. Perhaps our audiologist was guilty of an error of omission, but in retrospect I will credit her for leaving the slate clean for us to write our story in our own words. It took years to understand which of those words were chosen for us, which we chose for ourselves, and which associations are just beyond our control.
First of all, I’ve got to ask what’s to be gained by contradicting anyone’s position on identifying with Deaf-first or Child-first qualifiers anyway. One does not have to be wrong so the other can be right. Both points of view are true. Truth is like a Rorschach test interpreted in the context of experience where we form our perspectives.
That said, it’s true that some opinions are just wrong, right?? Consider the teacher of the deaf who chastised us for naming our daughter Makena. She tartly slapped my wrist, shook her head and predicted, “Dane will never be able to say that.” Clearly, I’d failed her test of insightfulness as the parent of a deaf child. (This assumption really annoyed me, and made me want to change my daughter’s name to Aloysius.)
Right Name or Wrong Choice?
Yet I know that this teacher was genuinely concerned that Dane would be embarrassed and frustrated if he was never able to get his own sister’s name right. We were to do him a favor and name her “Bo.” While we didn’t acquiesce on the name, we did worry about the intelligibility-fallacy--that good speech in deaf children is the indicator of a strong intellect and ultimate commercial value to society. If he didn’t develop good speech, would he feel he’d disappointed us or couldn’t cut it in the hearing world? His entire self-worth reduced to phonics?! Certainly, Dane could get Makena’s name sign right, even if only a small population of the world could comprehend that. Would that mean he’d only be comfortable in the Deaf world and leave us—his hearing family—behind? It was all so overwhelming.
I’ve pondered these mysteries for a long time now and concluded that the issues are too complex for there to be any easy or uniformly right answers. There’s only the journey that we navigate as parents and professionals every single day towards the discovery of what is right for each individual child. The implications go far beyond communication modes and methods to the broadest view of the whole child: the social, academic, familial, employable, “comfortable in his/her own skin” fulfilled human being. This process would be neatly predictable in a perfect world. Well, welcome to our world where “what works for your child is what makes the choice right.” ™ ~