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  • Noah Angus Johnson

Hi, I'm Deaf

I'm not deaf in the sense that title probably has you thinking. I can, in fact, hear. But I was born with partial deafness in both ears, and have gone my whole life hearing somewhere between 60-70% of what people with perfect hearing can. It's an awkward position to be in when it comes to labeling myself, and that's why I've come to jot down these thoughts.


My girlfriend and I like to watch old seasons of Project Runway as filler TV (well, we did, until Hulu locked it behind a higher subscription tier, thanks Hulu) and in season 12 there is a deaf contestant, Justin LeBlanc. Much of his journey on the show was tied up in his determination to represent his community, and much to my surprise, I found it personally moving. Justin was born deaf, and had a cochlear implant put in at 18. He still relied on an ASL interpreter for much of the show, but he was also helped by the implant, lip reading, and context clues, something I am very familiar with due to my level of impairment. Seeing him succeed was far more relatable than I had expected, because for the majority of my life, I have not considered myself part of a broader community of deaf or hearing impaired people, and have resisted being labeled as such.


I've been struggling to think of why this is. It's not something that I necessarily endured playground bullying for. It hasn't been a visible impairment since I stopped wearing over-the-ear hearing aids when I began high school (and I would soon stop wearing them altogether as the maintenance and expense was too much to justify for what I saw as little gain). But I definitely formed an emotional resistance to thinking of myself as disabled; I don't check the box on forms, I don't ask for accommodations unless I really, really need them.


And yet, I find myself increasingly encountering resistance in my everyday life to the idea of simple accommodations that would make me more fully able to participate in certain activities. Closed captions are the big one. It's honestly absurd how many people are stridently opposed to a bit of text on the bottom of the screen that reinforces exactly what the people in the movie are saying, especially when you're watching, say, Christopher Nolan's latest masturbatory nonsense that doesn't make any sense even before he drowns out the dialogue with the worst sound mixing short of an indie metal album. Friends who come over to watch TV huff and roll their eyes at the inconvenience. I was recently engaged in an online discussion with a guy who, in essence, told me to fuck off because theaters would never include closed captions as standard practice, not on his watch, no sir.


This, I think, is a dynamic I picked up on as a child and learned to avoid by simply pretending my disability didn't exist. There is a societal resistance to accommodating people with certain needs that you don't need me to tell you about. (Incidentally, this is another thing I struggle with: I can, by and large, get by just fine, so it feels like I'm being disingenuous when I attempt to take our culture to task for something that affects me far less than it does others.) In the context of school, Emerson Whitney made an observation in their book Heaven which struck a chord with me. They mention that special education is often framed as a training program for menial workers, operating under the assumption that such labor is the best people with special needs can offer society. They are incapable or unworthy of being educated in the same way as able-bodied and neurotypical people, but their bodies can still be useful. I think I resisted the "disabled" label because I knew from a young age that I would never escape its shadow. I always felt a sense of shame when I had to ask to be moved to the front of the class so I could hear the teacher better, or needed written instructions. I knew the "accommodations" that existed were not necessarily there to help me, but to make sure I wasn't a waste.


To circle back to Justin, I found him inspiring because his presence on the screen in the midst of a major artistic competition unearthed anxieties I didn't know I had, about being held back from succeeding in the way I wanted because I had been sorted into a category of people for whom that kind of success was not encouraged. I'm still not comfortable labeling myself, or claiming the space that I feel belongs to people who need it more than I do. But I want to be able to acknowledge my own feelings and experience on the matter. And for that I can thank, improbably, Project Runway.

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