The doors we leave open

March 18, 2018 – 9:40 am

I’ve been thinking about the doors we leave open, even if they don’t look like they’ll be taken at the time.

One version of this, for me, is that I grew up deaf and oral in the mainstream (local public school with hearing kids). I grew up with speaking and listening as doors that were flung wide open with flashing neon signs and adults hurrying me towards them — but the doors of ASL and Deaf culture were also there, in ways that were important to how I engage with them now, as an adult trying to learn.

There was the itinerant Teacher of the Deaf who visited my elementary school and (briefly) showed 7-year-old Mel a few signs before her parents put a stop to it. I don’t have clear memories of this, but discovering that IEP note as a graduate student was a jolt: my younger self had shown promise for learning how to sign at a remarkable rate, and seemed to enjoy it? Signing was a thing that I had… and maybe could… enjoy, not only fear? These were doors it took me twenty years to walk through.

Even if my parents stopped me from learning ASL (or whatever variant of contact sign people were going to use with me), they did bring me to watch the local children’s theatre, which had Deaf performers. As a slightly older child, I wanted nothing to do with ASL or the Deaf community; it was foreign to me, and everyone kept telling me I was so smart precisely because I could act so much like a hearing kid. I loved music (“like a hearing kid,” I thought, not knowing that Deaf people could also love music). I loved musicals. So my parents brought me to Oliver, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and there was signing on the stage… which I couldn’t understand. But later, I could look back and think: there was art there, dancing, theatre, music… and there was ASL there, blended in with them. Exploring this strange new Deaf world wouldn’t mean giving up these things I loved; it might even expand what I could imagine in those spaces. These were doors that took me fifteen years to walk through.

There were the educational interpreters who were assigned to me for a few years, after my parents stopped the ToD from teaching me to sign. (Yeah, I’m not sure what the logic behind this was either.) I had already learned how to learn everything from books, and didn’t know this strange new language they were using with me, so I resented and mostly tried to ignore their presence as much as a lonely child could. As soon as I was able to formulate the argument that I didn’t “need” interpreting, I did — and breathed a sigh of middle-school relief that these people wouldn’t follow me through all my teenage years. But a few years ago, when I started thinking about (willingly) learning ASL and (willingly) seeing what this whole “interpreted access” thing was about, I had two people to reach out to. And they responded! (Thanks, Jamie and Christine… and further back, though I couldn’t find her, Francesca.) These were doors that took me thirteen years to walk through.

There were the folks who were (ex-)interpreters, or captioners, or signers, and kept being those things while we were friends and colleagues in the spaces I already worked in and wanted to be in (which is to say, tech spaces – not Deaf spaces). Who kept being adjacent to both worlds, who kept reminding me that trying these things out might be easier than I thought. Who reminded me that trying it wasn’t a permanent commitment; who walked me through how I could ask for things and set them up, when it was time. (Thank you, Steve and Patti and Mirabai.) Took me… seven years to walk through some of those doors. Or five. But I walked through them all, eventually.

So yeah, those doors. Important things. We don’t know when people will take them, but… even if it’s “not now,” even if it might well be “never,” we… just never know. Open the doors and keep them open, even when it seems completely useless. Wait, and wait, and wait. It’s important that these doors be open, because we never know who’ll come through them, at the most surprising times.

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