I live in an apartment building in a quiet central Massachusetts suburb, containing nine apartments. At the beginning of this summer, my neighbors from six of the nine apartments collaborated on a back yard cookout/birthday party for Silvio, who lives on the first floor with his wife. They invited me to attend. The group of Silvio’s friends was quite hospitable in offering me plenty to eat and checking occasionally to see that I had a full drink. Aside from that….well, everybody seemed to be enjoying the party, chatting and laughing with each other.
I, on the other hand, was just sitting back, observing, not understanding most of the conversations, or the humorous stories or jokes being told (I assume) that everyone was laughing over. After about an hour, I grew bored with this and tried to politely thank the hosts, wish the birthday boy well, and take my leave. Several members of the group insisted I stay, and one handed me another drink. Okay, I’m trying to be friendly with my neighbors as they’re a nice group of people (I’ve had some not-so-nice neighbors in the past), so I decided I’d stick it out for a while longer. By the end of the second hour I had had enough, I was growing frustrated and I just wanted to stand up and scream, “Why the hell do you people want me to stay if you’re not going to include me in the conversation!” Instead I waited until nobody was looking, snuck off to my car and drove to a friend’s house to wait out the remainder of the party before returning home for the night.
The reason I could not understand and join in the conversations is that most of my neighbors in my building are from Brazil, and they speak Portuguese. I was born & raised in New England and my first language is English. The kicker is, several of these neighbors have been studying in America for the last few years and have become quite fluent in English, and the others know at least enough English to effectively communicate with me. It just seems on this particular day, nobody was thinking to speak in English while sitting around me, or at least to have someone translate for me so that I could be included in the conversations and laugh along with them. I kept having to ask for someone to realize I didn’t have a clue what was going on, and after awhile, I got tired of asking. I was left feeling like a foreigner in my own back yard.
This experience reminded me a bit of a blog trilogy written by one of my dearest friends, Ms. Virginia Beach, entitled “Home for the Holidays”, in which she describes what it was like to be the only Deaf member in an all hearing family during holiday gatherings.
Virginia and I describe similar feelings of exclusion and frustration in our two stories, but there are a couple of differences.
I am hearing; Virginia is Deaf.
My neighbors can learn English (or I could learn Portuguese). Virginia can’t learn to hear.
No matter how fluent in the English language my friend is, she is always going to need captioning for watching movies and television, relay services for making telephone calls, and, in certain situations, a certified interpreter.
Simple things that I can enjoy with some of my hearing friends, things that many hearing people may take for granted, are not things I can share with my Deaf friends. For instance, if I wish to see a movie that just opened in the theatres with my friend Virginia…well, we’ll probably have to wait for it to be released on DVD, as there are few theaters that offer captioned movie showings. (None that I have found local to me.)
This is one of the many reasons that I support the Equal Communication Access Campaign, and why I have volunteered to be a judge for the Equal Communication Access Blogging/Vlogging Contest.
The reason I tell my story about the party above is that I feel that other hearing people who do not have any experience with Deaf people may be able to relate better to the situation I was in with my neighbors.
One big complaint I hear often from my hearing friends and acquaintances is that of the many immigrants who come to America and do not learn to effectively communicate in English…and/or that if they do know English, they will still speak to others in their native language even in a setting where the majority of people around them are English speaking.
And quite honestly, it irritates the heck outta me that America has become so accommodating for those who speak Spanish, but does not put accessibility for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans on the same priority level.
For those among the hearing who feel like they are a foreigner, an outsider, in their own communities for reasons much like I have described with my neighbors…imagine feeling like that at your own family’s holiday gatherings.
For those among the hearing community who feel that accessibility for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is not an issue that will ever affect or impact you personally, I leave you with the following:
I am in my mid 30’s and am experiencing a progressive hearing loss in one ear…so far it’s only one ear…but who knows what the future may bring. Ask my boss at work how often I ask her to repeat herself because I did not hear her instructions clearly. (Then ask me how annoyed I get sometimes in having to continually remind her to speak up when there’s background noise, or approach me from the other side if she wants me to hear what she’s saying.) More often these days I am utilizing closed captioning on my television so that I can understand programs without cranking the volume up to the highest setting and blasting everyone else out of the house.
My Mother has become extremely hard of hearing after undergoing several rounds of intensive chemotherapy for lymphoma cancer.
Equal Communication Access may very well become just as important to you or someone in your family.