I couldn't have been more than 19, sitting at a sticky table in a dim-lit bar buzzing with young adults and university students. I was there with a group of friends, some of whom had brought their own friends. He sat down with us with a cheap beer. He was scruffy, a visiting American to the Canadian Island where I was in school. He had a little twang that sold him as southern, but he seemed eager to fit the bill of a city kid in his hipster-eque attire.
It wouldn't have been an issue, except that he kept covering his mouth as he nibbled on chips and salsa. And while I appreciated being spared from seeing the contents of his chewing, I rely heavily on lip reading -- especially in loud places. Long past the days of being embarrassed about my genetic degenerative hearing loss and the fact that I wear barely-visible hearing aids, I told him I had a hearing loss and needed to see his lips when he talked. He looked dumbfounded, eyebrows raised as he looked me over. "You don't look like someone who's like... disabled," he said.
The comment stopped me.
"Huh... What exactly does someone who is disabled look like?" I asked. He tried to backtrack, but didn't help his case by adding, "No, I just mean you're beautiful. I wouldn't have known." He smiled as if I should fall to his feet at the "compliment."
And that was, give or take a word, where our conversation ended. I assured him I had no interest in altering any of his preconceived assumptions of the world and rolled my eyes as I went to find my friends.
In middle and high school, my life as a disabled person was not much different. The main difference was me. I was embarrassed and insecure. I often opted to just not hear in my classes if I had worn my hair up, rather than risk fellow teenagers seeing my hearing aids. When they were in, I would catch the occasional jab about being "the deaf girl." And then there was the Abercrombie-laden boy in my history class who would repeatedly lean forward and whisper random sounds to see if I turned around. Of course, there were the nicer people too, and a few teachers I was okay with knowing about my hearing loss -- but knowing I was hearing impaired often led them to embarrassing overcompensation. Planting their face two inches from mine, practically yelling and trying to enunciate to a ridiculous degree. And that was just, well... awkward. Not to mention, unnecessary.
Teachers tried to cheer me up by referring to it as "differently-abled," but that only made me feel stupid. I didn't need a euphemism, I didn't need it sugar coated to sound a little happier. To my teenage self, being a disabled person felt like a stamp of freakdom. The reality about being the "deaf girl," about being hearing impaired and needing hearing aids and extra help to go about your daily life, is that you are enrobed with assumptions and judgments. Not knowing, someone can easily brand you as an "idiot" for responding inappropriately to a given conversation -- "hearing it wrong." Or a snob. I can't tell you the number of times people have confided to me that they used to think I was ignoring or snubbing them. Little did they know, I couldn't hear them, and may not have known they were talking to me unless they were facing me.
I was in the middle. Not totally deaf, not totally hearing. I used to think things would have been easier having been born deaf. Not gradually watching my hearing slip away. Not getting hearing aids as a kid. Not remembering what it's like to be able to just hear, to carry on in the world without hearing aids. To not need extra accommodations. Maybe if I had known it only one way or the other all along, things would be different. But the change? Well, I watched it. Not deaf enough to be "deaf," or to go to a special school. Not hearing enough to be not-disabled. What did it make me? And what does disability look like? Who's to say it doesn't look like me?
And so, as a young adult, I watched the switch from tweens and teens' urge to mock disability to young adults' surprise (and word-vomit stupidity) at my disability. "Wow, you are working on your masters AND you're disabled? Good for you!" Again and again, it highlighted the deep-rooted social dichotomy of what disability should look like. And I can still hear my first wake-up call to that world; that southern boy with his oversized beanie questioning just how it came to be that I was both "pretty" and disabled. A comment I harbored for years, embarrassed to even tell my friends at the time.
And today, as a grown woman, married with a child of my own who also has a 50/50 chance to have inherited my hearing loss, I can comfortably say that I appreciate the hand I was dealt. I appreciate, however harsh it may have felt, hearing the asshole son of my mom's friend call my mom a derogatory name regarding her being 'deaf'. I appreciate the discomfort I felt in middle school, the kids that made fun of me in high school, and the idiots I ran into in bars. Because it taught me a lot about people, about values, differences. It gave me a clear warning sign for who to avoid, who not to invest in. It allowed me to grow, to develop confidence in whatever I was. And actually, it gave me a sense of pride in this gene I have. This connection and understanding of my mother, my cousins, my uncle, grandparents. It ties me to a span of long-ago history in my family. And that is mine. It is within me, it is a part of me. But it's also something I know to be much larger than myself.
So what does disability look like? In the modern Western world, with the rise of technology and human capabilities, disability has the power to enhance the diversity of one of man's greatest, most simple contributions to betterment of this world: perspective.