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National Deaf Awareness Month

Deafness is something that was never unknown to me. In my family, it’s not as out of the ordinary as it probably is in most families. That’s because I have three family members who are deaf, and the funny thing is that none of their deafness is hereditary, so it doesn’t run in my family. My Aunt Pat was born deaf, due to an illness my grandmother contracted while pregnant. My grandfather (who is my Aunt Pat’s father) lost his hearing in an accident. And my cousin was deaf from birth but was adopted by my Aunt Maggie (my Aunt Pat’s sister and another of my grandpa’s daughters) when she was a young girl.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with this side of the family, especially my aunt. Her daughter, my cousin Jen, and I are very close and were best friends growing up. We had sleepovers all the time, sometimes for days on end. My Aunt Pat was like a second mother to me, as was my mom to Jen. When I would stay at their house, Aunt Pat would take us to the zoo or to McDonald’s, or we’d rent scary movies at Blockbuster and watch them with a big bowl of popcorn. It was during these outings I got a peek into what it’s like for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing to communicate with staff or workers of different businesses. When Jen and I were little, my aunt was taking us to these places without another adult. We were too small to handle transactions or adult interactions, so she was navigating these situations on her own. In retrospect, I’m amazed and so grateful that she did that for us.

My aunt is very skilled at reading lips, which allows her to communicate with hearing people quite well. But not everyone can understand her when she talks the way that family members and I can. Sometimes, employees would have trouble having a conversation with her, which, I’m sure, was frustrating for Aunt Pat, as well as the employees. Another challenge came during the COVID-19 pandemic. With everyone wearing masks, it made it that much harder for her to communicate because she couldn’t read lips.

However, I will also say that as technology has advanced since the ‘90s, it has become easier to communicate with my aunt from a distance. She lives in Chicago and I live in Colorado, but we talk all the time. As texting became more mainstream, I was able to type back and forth to her to keep in contact. And with the invention of FaceTime she can also have a conversation in sign language whenever she wants, wherever she is. When I was younger, the only way to talk to my aunt when we weren’t in person was through teletypewriter (TTY). Essentially, she would type into it, and someone would call us and relay the messages over the phone back and forth. It wasn’t a great way to communicate, and we only used it in an emergency.

These were just the challenges I witnessed. But I have thought about all the other issues she must have faced that I never thought about. For instance, my aunt is a single mom. How did she know when Jen was crying as a baby in the night? How does she know when an emergency vehicle is approaching while she is driving? I don’t know exactly how these issues were addressed but I know that my aunt didn’t let anything stop her from living her life, raising her daughter alone, and being an incredible aunt and second mom to me. There are things that will always stick with me from growing up spending so much time with my Aunt Pat. Whenever I’m out and see two people speaking in sign language to each other, I want to say hello. I feel comforted by the close captions on the TV. And right now I’m teaching my 7-month-old son the sign for “milk” because babies can learn sign language before they can talk.

Deafness is considered by some to be an “invisible disability,” and I will always think that it’s important to make accommodations so that the deaf community is able to participate in all the things that the hearing community can. But from what I’ve seen and read, most deaf people do not consider it a disability. And that to me speaks to the spirit of my Aunt Pat. Spending time with my aunt, grandpa, and cousin has taught me that the deaf community is capable of everything that the hearing community is capable of and more.

If you want to learn some sign language, to more easily communicate with the deaf community, there are many resources online.

  • The ASL App is a free app available for Google and Apple phones, designed by deaf people for those wanting to learn sign language.
  • Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing, also offers online courses.
  • There are also a number of YouTube videos that will teach you a few quick signs that come in handy, like this one.

If you want to teach your baby sign language, there are plenty of resources for that as well.

  • What to Expect offers suggestions on the signs to use with your baby along with how and when to introduce them.
  • The Bump has an article featuring cartoon images illustrating popular baby signs.
  • And, again, a quick YouTube search will bring up videos showing you how to do signs for baby, like this one.