25 August 2012

Growing up CODA: Life Somewhere Between Deaf and Hearing

A very special thanks to our guest blogger, Anthony Todesco, for sharing his story:

(ME) Sorry I’m not home yet, practice is going late. I should be leaving school in a few minutes. Go ahead.
(INTERPRETER) Okay, honey. Please make sure you don’t miss supper. Go ahead.
(ME) I won’t. See you soon. Love you. Go ahead.
(INTERPRETER) I love you too.
(INTERPRETER) Your mom has hung up. Do you need to make another phone call? 

Telling a stranger that you love them probably seems odd to most people. But I spent my childhood doing this, as sign language interpreters were surrogates for the voices of my parents. Interpreters were also the voices of the doctors, teachers, counselors, and others involved in my upbringing who couldn’t communicate directly with them. Grown-ups tried to be accommodating, but they just hoped as little as possible was lost in translation.

I’m a CODA, which means Child of a Deaf Adult. Until I was in fourth grade, I was convinced my parents were CIA agents who were really, really good at ignoring their two wild kids. It wasn’t until I grew a bit older that I realized they weren’t pretending. My dad was born deaf into a deaf family. My mom was born into a hearing family, but she lost her hearing at 15 months old due to a side effect of the medicine used to treat the flu in the 1960s. I have a hearing sister who is two years younger. Together, and with our three Chihuahuas, we formed quite the household.

I grew up in Rochester, NY—the city with the largest deaf population in the nation. It’s such a Deaf Mecca because the region is a hub for deaf education. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where my parents met, is there. And Rochester School for the Deaf, where my mom teaches, is a respected K–12 school. Rochester is one of the most deaf-friendly cities in the U.S., where nearly every aspect of life is accessible: In 1994 my dad made history by becoming New York’s first deaf post office window clerk, and my mom was NY’s first deaf grand juror in 1996. Although Rochesterians generally understand deafness better and pose fewer communication barriers, my childhood was still pretty out of the ordinary.

When strangers find out I’m a CODA, I’m always asked the same questions and always convey my customary answers: No, I did not curse in front of my parents. But, yes, I did occasionally sneak out of the house. I could play music as loud as I wanted. But since I was left to my own devices and exposed to only MTV, I was unable to identify a Beatles song until college.  Sure, I can show you a few dirty signs. People have asked about my experience ever since I could talk. Perhaps it was good luck that I could barely speak until I was five.

ASL, not English, is my first language. I was born signing and loved it—perhaps too much. Due to my limited exposure to spoken language, I had to undergo two years of speech therapy when I turned three. My hearing grandma became concerned when I refused to communicate with her using my voice. I guess I didn’t see the point in replacing the beauty of ASL. Even so, bringing me to specialists was unavoidable. It wasn’t possible for me to grow up in only the Deaf world. I had to be mainstreamed. Fortunately, being raised in two worlds was easier in my city.

Having deaf parents isn’t unconventional in Rochester. Many of my friends were CODAs, and the ones that weren’t were most likely learning ASL at school (probably alongside me, as I acquired straight A’s in my school ASL courses, fulfilling the “foreign” language requirement). Few considered it weird, and most really liked it. Everyone thought the lights that flashed throughout the house whenever the doorbell or phone rang was cool. We always played with my parents’ alarm clock to feel their bed vibrate violently. The time I convinced my eager-to-sign friend that “thank you” in ASL was actually the tasteless universal gesture for “retard,” and she unwittingly signed that to my mom. Awesome (disclosure: growing up CODA doesn’t ensure you’ll mature quicker). Overall, people were excited to know more about my family and our language.

Was I ever made fun of? Overhearing ignorant people make insensitive and offensive comments about my parents right in front me because they didn’t realize I could hear wasn’t easy to deal with. However, my moments of pain were, more often than not, self-inflicted. Like most teenagers, during puberty I began caring too much about what I assumed others were thinking. There are numerous embarrassing CODA moments that kids with hearing parents don’t get the joy of living through. While they are now hilarious memories, at the time they were mortifying.

Interpreting for my parents when they were irritated was always awkward. I’d like to apologize to all the waiters, Jehovah's Witnesses, and cashiers for the unpleasant comments I had to relay—I tried to be as diplomatic as a twelve-year-old could. One time, post-9/11 at the Orlando Airport, my dad ran up to a jetway door and started banging on it, yelling in front of a huge crowd for the crew to hold the plane. He didn’t hear the announcement that the flight before ours was delayed and just leaving the gate, and the family had to face the routine judgmental stares from strangers.

I was uncomfortable hearing my dad cheer us on at soccer games because his voice is so much louder than he knows, and I imagined more stares from the crowd. I even felt embarrassed having to walk my dogs down the street. We were “those people” with the most piercing non-stop barking dogs in the world, and the neighborhood suffered this quality of life to continue for ten years because they knew the owners couldn’t hear their annoying Chihuahuas. It was difficult to not stand out, and my insecure teenage self believed I was standing out for all the wrong reasons. There were times I was ashamed of my parents in public.

I realize that doesn’t paint the most flattering picture, but my feelings were a symptom of adolescence, and as I aged I started to love that mom and dad couldn’t help who they were.  And who they are is exceptional.  My dad is a remarkably talented ASL performer and storyteller, lighting up the faces of even the newest ASL students when he takes the stage in Deaf shows and festivals. My mom is heavily involved in Deaf society, active in the local Deaf club and in her alumni association to bring together people that may lack a sense of community elsewhere in the world (not to mention she was valedictorian, and can read lips as well as any FBI lip reader). Their strength in converting a “disability” into a means for a rewarding life was inspiring and eventually showed me how incredible Deaf culture is.

It took time for me to recognize how much I appreciated the core Deaf values of diversity and acceptance (and unreserved crude humor). As a group often cut off from the world, Deaf people have fostered a progressive culture. Inclusive of all types of individuals, the Deaf have an enclave that is compassionate and dynamic. When I moved away from home for college in Boston, I felt a significant void: I missed signing, watching open captioned movies, and even hearing my dad’s deafening voice. Gratefully, my college had an active ASL organization that I became a member of at the first chance. Not only was I able to have a piece of home with me in Boston, but joining the club also revealed to my parents how important and how much I need ASL in my life.

I wasn’t always sure if they knew. Growing up, I would ask my mom if she wished I was deaf. She said no, she wanted life to be as uncomplicated as possible for me. I think it was easier for her to say that because as I ultimately recognized, I am, myself, Deaf.
-Anthony Todesco

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