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Needing hearing aids as a child, I found the outside world insensitive. Now I am fighting ableism

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“S behind the gate,” my parents would tell me in hopes of ridding me of my lisp to improve my speech and enunciation skills.

The day before starting Grade 1, I was sitting in the kitchen with my parents when I became filled with (what I now know to be) angst. “What if no one likes me because I have hearing aids?” I asked. Without hesitation, my parents responded with: “What’s not to like about you? Everyone has challenges in life, and yours just happens to be physical.”

Growing up in an environment that believes in and fights for equality, I was somewhat raised in a bubble, sheltered from the “real world.” I knew that I was different. When I walked down the street, kids would stare at my hearing aids and ask the adult next to them what that thing in my ear was. I was treated differently, often talked down to, but I didn’t have the correct language to identify what I was going through.

I didn’t expect that the majority of people in my life would be uneducated around issues of disability, never mind that I’d be discriminated against. I could not grasp why, the second I stepped out of my loving and reassuring household, my uniqueness was mistaken for incapacity.

Although I had a longing to be and look like everyone else, to blend in, I wore my hearing aids proudly. My ear moulds were often brightly coloured, glittered, even glow-in-the-dark.

But as I grew into an anxiety-ridden preteen, I realized I was a target, and more susceptible to being taken advantage of. Not receiving praise, or encouragement, from most of my teachers damaged my self-esteem. They were instructed to wear an FM system, a microphone and amplifier that increased sound to my hearing aids, around their necks. Some teachers would turn their backs and say, “Ugh, she’s so stupid,” and of course I could hear them.

Although my parents told me I was capable like any other person, the majority of the outside world thought otherwise. With this realization came self-doubt and decades of second-guessing myself. Somewhere along the way, I developed a toughened façade that I won’t dare shake. I could not understand what could possibly be so problematic or unnecessarily time-consuming about me receiving accommodations for my hearing loss.

Irma Kniivila for The Globe and Mail

Many students with disabilities are denied proper accessibility within the education system, which has hindered many including myself from living up to our full potential. Once I learned the term “ableism,” I realized there is a specific discrimination against those who are disabled. I can’t recall the day I started identifying my hearing loss as a disability rather than a challenge, but I remember the day I wholeheartedly decided to make fighting this my life’s work.

This passion did not come easily or bring me happiness, in all sorts of ways. I grew tired easily. I didn’t have the same energy I’d had as a child, and staying angry became tedious. Instead of expecting compassion from others, I began to expect harsh judgment and non-acceptance. Learning that, according to society, no matter how much I excel at something I am just not good enough, shattered my illusions about what life was all about. I found myself not wanting to inform others of my hearing loss for fear of it being held against me. I felt so lonely and incapable of achieving what I once believed I could, like I shouldn’t even be dreaming – that I may not be able to get even an ordinary job.

What ableism does is make many, including myself, feel as if our options are limited, that all the possibilities in life are not obtainable by us. This is indeed a mentality that I have been taught and it is a fault of the system.

My life’s goal is the elimination of ableism and the barriers that are presented to people with disabilities. I try to model this by correcting ableist language and not apologizing to people who think my disability is an inconvenience for them. I am often asked if I sleep with my hearing aids on, and I respond with, “Do you sleep with your glasses on?” Access to hearing aids should be identical to glasses.

I am not looking for sympathy, or to be a token of inspiration for your life: What people with disabilities want is inclusion and accessibility; to not have to ask for basic human rights on a daily basis. When able-bodied actors are hired to play disabled characters, even though disabled actors are searching for work, that is wrong. Not to mention, I have never seen a disabled person of colour represented in any mainstream disability organization I have come across.

We need able-bodied people to help in this movement, just like every movement needs allies. However, disabled people should always have the mic first. The majority of hard-of-hearing folks grow up mainstreamed and isolated – withdrawn from the deaf and hard-of-hearing culture and community – as I did. Now, I’ve begun to incorporate myself into that community to connect with others who share similar barriers and the passion to create change.

I did not grow up fluent in sign language but I am learning it and have participated in public-speaking competitions for the deaf and hard of hearing. For this to be my life’s work, I must begin with myself.

Kalia Douglas-Micallef lives in Toronto.

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