by Zusi Inegbeniki
Maybe if I act strong they won’t see me drowning.
At age 10 I started to dream of drowning. I’d have these nightmares so often that I became scared to sleep. In the dream, I was deep underwater. I could hear the scared voices of my family screaming for help. I couldn’t get to the surface. Everything started to go dark and I woke up. At age 14 I decided to tell my mother about the dreams. I expected a deep God-ordained dream interpretation but her response was simple.
“That’s not a dream, it’s a memory”
I was just 4 years old when I had a near-drowning accident. I have no clear memory of this besides what I later found out as a teenager. The doctors told my family that it could affect my development of hearing and memory – but a child blessed by God couldn’t possibly be disabled. So they never told me. They hoped that if I didn’t know I couldn’t hear then it wouldn’t be an obstacle…classic.
I was angry. I was angry at my family for never telling me but, most of all, I was angry at myself. Who the hell forgets that they nearly died?! I soon learned that infantile amnesia is very common. Most people do not vividly remember their life before 5 years old but something else was wrong. I could never remember where I left my keys or the next dance move in a routine that I choreographed. So at age 14 I took myself to a doctor and told her my story.
After a series of tests and a minor surgery, we discovered I have trauma-induced chronic otitis media. The ear trauma from my accident had impaired my hearing severely in one ear and mildly in the other. She explained that brain hypoxia could lead to memory issues and everything started to make sense.
I could never hear from the back of the classroom, my siblings would have to tell me when my mother called and I couldn’t whisper for the life of me. Learning that you are hearing impaired is like finding out you had another identity. It warps your self-perception and attacks your mental health.
As a black woman, I struggled with the labels “disabled”, “partially deaf” or hearing impaired. I wanted nothing to do with deaf culture because I had internalized the idea that “a black woman blessed by God couldn’t possibly be disabled”. I needed to be strong, faultless and “beautifully and wonderfully made” because the world had enough stacked against me.
I never got the help I needed because I, like many black women, told myself I didn’t need it. If I needed help I was weak. Learning sign language was admitting to myself that I was “less than able” so I refused to learn for a long time.
To be hearing impaired and black is to be twice as loud. It’s a constant battle to not be seen as “rowdy” and forgiving yourself when you’re being loud. To be disabled and black is to be twice as isolated. It’s never hearing the group joke and not being able to enjoy the funny moment. To be hearing impaired and black is to be twice as “angry black woman”. It’s thinking you’re speaking in an appropriate tone just to be told “don’t be so aggressive”. It’s deciding to stay in your room because you know you’ll feel left out of the conversation. It’s saying “I’m busy” just to give yourself a break from lip reading. It’s never wanting to be at the end of the dinner table but trying not to be the center of attention.
Being black and being a woman is rough in a white-dominated world and being disabled in an able-bodied world adds just another layer of pain mentally and physically. So remember to reach out, talk about and learn more about disabled and impaired people.
Here are a few quick tips to help you with a hearing-impaired friend:
Avoid mocking speaking volume / saying we talk weird
Avoid the whisper test ( whispering something and then saying “did you hear me?” )
Avoid assuming we all know sign language
Check on us when in large groups
Try not to get annoyed when we ask you to repeat yourself
Avoid saying “nevermind” when we don’t hear you
Ask before you suggest assistive hearing devices
Don’t EVER say “you don’t look deaf”