Two weeks ago, at the Farmer’s Market in Napa, I had a moment when my disability became real. Granted, I’ve lived with my hearing impairment for 22 years now, but this was the first time in a long time that I was surrounded by people who did not know how to talk to me when they saw my hearing-aid. It was incredibly frustrating, given the context; this was a Chef’s Market, complete with crowds, alcohol and local bands. In short, it was noisy. The sounds cancelled all human speech, so I felt that my senses were being accosted from every direction. When I cannot hear, my sense of touch is acute- so acute that I cannot stand being touched without eye contact and consent. My reaction was to turn inwardly. I stopped smiling, stopped interacting.
I think this explains my early childhood asocial tendencies. I preferred silence and solitude to interacting with my peers. Sound was not stimulation, it was simply an unnecessary nuisance. There are still moments when I prefer non-verbal communication (ASL, written cues, etc) to spoken communication. Also, I believe that my parsimony in words stems from my dislike of unneccesary noise. I rarely use 10 words when 1 will suffice.
I digress, but the feeling that I had fallen-short of society’s expectation that I function like a non-disabled person was piercing. I’d gotten through 4 years of undergraduate, working, volunteering, even serving as Executive Secretary for my sorority. In those 4 years, I had never been as frustrated as I was last Thursday.
Until that moment, it never occured to me that my hearing-impairment was something that could hold me back or impair my social mobility. Currently, I am looking at moving to South Korea and teaching English in a hakwon. My good friend in Seoul warned me that since I am clearly a “foreigner” I will be subject to racism from the older generation. Part of it stems from the fear of speaking English and being looked down upon for not speaking Standard English as understood by Americans. I do not understand this, as most of the Korean-born folks I know speak impeccable English- even better than most native-born Americans. I’m aware that the people I know skew upper-middle class, with greater socio-economic mobility and greater access to higher education at universities around the world. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if I could ever pick up Korean when I was disadvantaged. Of course, my answer is yes. I will not let racism and xenophobia deter me from learning a language that will facilitate connections and mobility among and in the community in which I work.
Just food for thought.