Here is the full transcript of Stanford graduate and Rhodes scholar Rachel Kolb’s TEDx Talk: Navigating Deafness in a Hearing World at TEDxStanford conference.
Rachel Kolb – Stanford graduate and Rhodes scholar
I never thought I would be here today. My invitation to speak at TEDx clashed with some of my previous conceptions of what I can and can’t do.
I was born profoundly deaf, and learning to speak was not easy. Think about it for a second: when you can’t hear, how do you learn to speak? I could have chosen to use sign language today instead, if that would have been a perfectly viable choice. But for me the answer was 18 years of speech therapy. And at the very beginning that speech therapy was very physical. I spent a lot of time putting my hands on my speech therapist’s throat, to feel the vibrations when she spoke.
I learned that the sounds ‘m’ and ‘n’ are nasal. Try it for yourself, ‘m’, ‘n’. And I used that information to correct myself. I’ve always known that my speech isn’t perfect, but week after week I’d go back to try to make it better. I did this even when I had come to terms with my own difference.
Even now, oftentimes, I’ll meet a new person, and that person will look at me and say: “I can’t quite place your accent. Are you from England?” Or they’ll ask me, “Are you from Australia?” Or even, “Are you from Scandinavia?” I have other places.
And I say, “No, I’m from New Mexico”. It can be fun to be perceived as more exotic than I actually am. But, despite all of that, there have been people who have not encouraged me to speak like this.
When I was in middle school, I gave a presentation to my history class about Renaissance painters, like this guy. I practiced the presentation with one of my best friends, and on the day of, I walked in and I gave it without an interpreter. It took a considerable amount of courage for me to do this. And I felt like it had gone well until a few days later when I got feedback from the teacher.
I don’t remember what she said verbatim, but it was something like this: “You should never speak like that in front of a group without an interpreter. It is not fair to anyone who has to listen to you.”
Now, I want to believe that this teacher meant well, but I was shattered. I felt like my attempt to communicate clearly was an utter failure. And I’m starting this way, because as a deaf person, there are many things I’ve been told I can’t do. Either by other people, or by that internal voice we all have.
Society has a tendency to focus on disability rather than ability. And certainly, my abilities are different from many other people’s abilities. I wear a hearing aid in this ear, and a cochlear implant in this one, if I take both of them off, I can’t hear at all. I can’t talk on the phone; I can’t communicate exactly like everyone else.
I use lip reading and sign language instead. But over time I’ve come to perceive myself as far more able than disabled. A large part of this is not taking my challenges as outright limitations.
Another part of it is simply believing that I can. That’s what I decided to do when I accepted the speaking invitation for TEDx, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
I was born to hearing parents, who did not know sign language, and who knew almost nothing about deafness when they had me. This is not too uncommon among children who are born deaf. About 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born deaf or hard-of-hearing. Nine out of every 10 children who are born deaf, are born to parents who can hear. Of those families, only 10% ever learn to communicate effectively with their deaf child, by which I mean Sign Language, cued speech, other means like that. The other 90% do not.
Just think about the implications of that deaf children born to hearing parents are less likely to develop fluent written English than deaf children born to deaf parents. On average, deaf children born to deaf parents have a higher level of achievement: they score higher in other academic areas, and demonstrate greater independence and better social skills. Only a third of deaf children complete high school.
Out of the deaf individuals who do attend college, only a fifth complete their studies. On the whole, deaf adults earn about a third less than their hearing peers. These statistics tell a story of a fundamental misunderstanding. I’ll give it to you straight: deaf people are capable of doing anything hearing people can do, except hear. But communicating when you can’t hear exactly like everyone else is not the same as communicating if you are a typically hearing person.
And communication is so important. When I was born, my parents valued communication in a variety of forms: they learned sign language, they gave me other tools like speech therapy, but they also had other people there to support them. When I was 18 months old, I walked out of a speech therapy session, and my speech therapist pulled my mother aside: “I want to tell you something,” she said, “never put limitations on this child. She could do anything she wants to.” And my mother never forgot that.
So I grew up never thinking of myself as disabled, largely because my parents did not treat me that way. Neither did interpreters, speech therapists, many of my teachers, friends. But I discovered that some people could be quicker to make judgments about what they thought deafness means.
Let me give you one example. I have always loved horses. Since an early age, I have been fascinated by these magnificent creatures. But when I was in preschool, one of my favorite teachers had a horse. He was this big sweet thoroughbred that she did dressage with. And I met him when I was two years old. He was the first horse I ever rode.
I remember sitting on top – I don’t remember, but I imagine I would remember – sitting on top of this big animal, my feet not reaching down to the stirrups; I was absolutely smitten. I was in love. And so I grew up like many other little girls, who wanted nothing more than riding lessons. I begged. I pleaded.
I’m sure my parents thought, “Oh, she’ll get over it, it’s just a phase.”
Finally, when I was 8, they let me start. And I remember walking into the barn that very first day, thinking of nothing but the horses. That smell I wanted to walk by the stalls and touch all of their noses as their heads stuck out. But then, I met the riding instructor, and she found out I was deaf. She took one look at me and she said: “You’ll never learn how to ride by yourself. It’s too dangerous.” Now this was news to me at that time, but you know what my family did? We moved on.
We found another riding instructor. And you know what else? I guess that first instructor was wrong. Now horses are one of the most important things in my life. They gave me a purely physical language, and a way of communicating without words. And I think back to that first experience, and I realize that I wasn’t the one who was limited, this other person was. Just as horses have been a governing passion for me, so are reading and writing.
This is something that has been historically difficult for many deaf people. The median reading achievement of 17-to 21-year-old deaf students leaving American secondary schools, was at the 4th grade level. It doesn’t meet the reading level required for someone to be considered literate, which is at the 6th to 8th grade reading level.
Deaf children can face significant challenges in acquiring and using language. These challenges are not insurmountable, by any means. But they’re there, because deafness at its core is a communication barrier. These numbers make me sad. Language is precious to me. I’m majoring in English, and I want to be a writer. This is not necessarily the norm for many deaf people, but I’ve always known it.
Of course, there are capable writers out there who also happen to be deaf, but many other times, I’ve met another person who is deaf and told them I’m studying English, and their eyebrows rise at me in astonishment: “Wow, really?” they ask me. Or, they’ll even say, “Deaf people can’t write.”
Now, wait a minute! When we do this, when we say, “I can’t, I’m deaf,” or whatever the problem is, we put ourselves in a box. I haven’t done this with reading, but let me be honest with you, I’ve done it for other things. There have been things I’ve believed I can’t do.
One of the most difficult situations for me is any kind of group conversation where people are not signing. I communicate fine face-to-face, but walking into those kinds of group conversations is like watching a world championship ping-pong match with ten different people and half a dozen balls. There’s too much going on to get much of it. And when I came to Stanford, I was surely shocked by this college social environment. You know, the keg parties, music blaring over there, people talking, all of this stuff going on.
And during those moments, it was very easy to think, “I can’t. I can’t have a normal social life like another young person.” But over the time, I’ve learned one very important thing: I have a choice. I might not be able to choose what is easy for me or what is difficult, but I can choose how to use the abilities that I do have. This might mean meeting with friends who do know sign language, it might mean meeting with friends one-on-one, two-on-one, maybe three-on-one if they promise to behave.
And by embracing the choices that work for me, I’ve experienced many, richly rewarding things as a result. When we are children, I don’t think we inherently believe that we can’t do things. We need to hold on to this belief as we grow older. It can be a constant battle against the expectations of others, even against ourselves. But let’s try this.
Let’s resist the temptation to classify other people based on their disabilities or their challenges. Let’s focus on their abilities instead, and let’s focus on helping them realize those abilities, even when it means doing something different. And perhaps, most importantly, let’s apply this mindset to ourselves. We all have that voice in the back of our heads that tells us we can’t do things. It can be very insidious, a very dangerous voice.
But the way I see it, we all stand on the brink of a threshold. And on that side are our goals, the things we want to accomplish, but are not quite sure we can. And here we are, with our challenges and our doubts. The path from one side to the other could be different for each person. But let’s take the opportunity to say, “Well, I can,” and take a step across that threshold, and see what happens.
Thank you very much.
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