‘I want to be normal.’ People around me were always talk...

‘I want to be normal.’ People around me were always talking. I felt so lonely in my own world. I struggled to accept my deafness.’: Woman becomes hearing loss advocate, ‘I can do anything’

“My daily life motto is ‘I DEAF-initely’ can. I live by this motto as a deaf individual who was born deaf and faced all kinds of obstacles growing up. If I did not face those challenges, I believe I would not be the person I am today. My wonderful and supportive parents found out I was deaf when I was around 10 months old. They were in denial and grief as doctors told them I would not read past the third-grade level and they would have to choose to either teach me how to sign OR talk, not both.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

They decided to try the oral route to see where it took me and if it didn’t work out they were going to try sign language. Even as they grieved, they were still determined to give me the best life they possibly could and they sought out many options and resources. I received my first pair of hearing aids at around 12-months-old, followed by a home advisor for the deaf and hard-of-hearing once a week in order to develop my language.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

In preschool and kindergarten, I attended a school with kids who were just like me. I built friendships and was provided with resources that helped me learn in my environment. I was introduced to a frequency modulation (FM) system my teacher wore so I could hear in our noisy classroom environment. Around first grade, I moved to another school that had an oral and signing program that would support my educational needs. I often had trouble understanding my peers and making friends, since I did not know sign language well enough to communicate with others who were deaf.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

After many years of practice, my speech got better, but not like the other students in my class. I had a hard time communicating and often felt isolated. There were other kids who were deaf that used an interpreter in my classes and I was so intrigued by them. I would often watch them and try and listen through my FM system to figure out what the sign for each word was. Eventually, I became fluent in sign language! I realized how much more information I got by using an interpreter instead of lip-reading and depending on the amount of hearing I got out of my hearing aids (which was not much).

I still worked hard on my speech and when third grade came around, guess what, I was reading just fine! Around the same time, I decided I wanted to get a cochlear implant (CI). A CI is a surgically implanted hearing device that uses a microphone to bypass the hearing process and takes sounds directly to my auditory nerve for my brain to process it. It was a big decision so I asked my parents about it to see if it was possible for me to get one.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

We made many appointments and eventually, I was able to have surgery to get one! It took years of work to train my brain to understand different sounds around me that I never heard before with my hearing aids. My parents, speech therapists, and other educators helped me recognize sounds and how to pronounce different words I couldn’t hear before. This was one of the best decisions I had ever made and my hard work paid off. Keep in mind, wearing cochlear implants does not give me the ability to hear. It does not ‘fix’ anything but rather, it gives me the ability to understand the world around me better. It took years of training and hard work and it is not something you just get surgery for to suddenly hear things around you. When I take them off, I am no longer able to hear anything. After this surgery, I still used one hearing aid, but I began making friends, being confident in how I communicated and enjoying school. My hearing and communication were not perfect but I was learning! Looking back, I realize, with the right support, I could do anything I set my mind to!

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

I loved having other deaf friends because I could relate to them and have an equal ‘playing field’ for communication. I often struggled with hearing my peers and understanding the conversations around me and so I was very shy and did not interact with my ‘hearing peers’ much. I hated having a hard time understanding or hearing like my other hearing peers, so I often isolated myself in order to prevent having to say ‘what’ all the time and to decrease my frustration of trying to hear. While in school and still today, I have always hated group work or partners because that includes talking and hearing other people. I disliked having my interpreters joining our conversations because it pushed people away from wanting to talk to me. I always enjoyed working independently and that was my comfort zone. It always embarrassed me if I was wrong or had incorrect information. I would rather ask the teacher for clarification than my classmates just to avoid judgment.

As I got to middle school, my favorite memory would be joining the seventh and eighth volleyball team. I became friends with two of the girls on the team, which led to them inviting me to eat with them during lunch. They were accepting of my interpreter and I began to feel more comfortable being myself. It was a wonderful feeling to be invited to sit with someone. I always hated lunchtime because I didn’t really have anyone to sit with, especially when my deaf friends had a different lunch period than me.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

I continued playing volleyball in high school for 2 years and eventually stopped enjoying playing. There were more players and the game became more complex, which often led to me feeling left out from the team as I could not keep up with conversations. I was also treated differently. I made the best decision to join FFA (Future Farmers of America) and raised two lambs during my last 2 years of high school. I would say that was the highlight of my high school years.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

Also, during my senior year, I joined the water polo team for our school. That was a blast and I had wonderful teammates and coaches to make it a wonderful experience. While in the pool I could not hear, I only depended on lipreading. I was not provided an interpreter. My teammates and coaches were very patient and kind to me. They were all aware of my deafness and knew how to communicate with me without making me feel left out. This again showed me people who truly care are willing to take the extra time to provide support and I can achieve anything with their support! I also began to notice I am not that much different from other people. Everyone needs a support system in their lives. I just needed a little bit more.

My senior year was also when I decided to have my second CI surgery. Keep in mind, this surgery is not me trying to be ‘hearing,’ because I love who I am. This surgery gave me the opportunity to hear the beauty in the world and to make connections with people I otherwise would not have been able to make.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

As I got older, I accepted the identity of being deaf. I struggled with accepting my deafness when I was younger because I wanted to be ‘normal’ like my other peers. People around me were always talking with each other, laughing, cracking jokes, having fun, etc. I did not have that and I felt so lonely in my own world. My family was always there for me and I am forever grateful for that. Being home is where I felt safe.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

It was a HUGE transition when I decided to attend college at Texas State University, but that decision really allowed me to spread my wings. I became more social and talked more about my deafness and how to educate others about it. This allowed me to meet a wonderful group of friends my freshman year and we remain great friends to this day. They learned sign language for me, included me, and they did not treat me any differently. We all started going to events such as camping, country dancing, etc. This is also where I met my now soon-to-be husband. I always struggled with the thought no man who is hearing would ever want to marry a deaf person. He changed that mindset for me and I am forever thankful for his support and his acceptance of who I am.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

I still struggle to hear someone talking to me at times, but now I have the confidence to explain to them I am deaf and to ask them to repeat what they said. Sometimes they say, ‘I am so sorry,’ and then repeat themselves. Other times they get really nervous and do not know how to approach the situation, which causes them to over enunciate their words or they just say, ‘Never mind.’ Tip: do not ever say never mind to a deaf or hard-of-hearing person. This makes them feel not worthy to know what you said and it also makes them feel excluded.

I have met many people who have never met a deaf person before meeting me and they often forget I am deaf because I am verbally talking to them (thanks to my many years of hard work). They often have the mindset other deaf people can talk and hear like me. I have to remind them there is a wide spectrum of deafness and when they meet other deaf people, they need to keep in mind some only use sign language, some sign and talk, and some only talk with the help of hearing devices. We are all different but all have the same basic human desire to be accepted.

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

I have also adopted a blue heeler who is deaf, which is something I have always wanted to do. I saw an ad about a deaf dog in a shelter and decided I MUST meet him! He captured my heart and I knew he was going home with me. I felt this special bond and understanding when I met Rhett. While I know he is a dog, with both of us being deaf, I could feel the way he experienced the world. Since then, I have been his voice to educate others about deaf dogs and deafness in general. There are so many dogs who are deaf in shelters and rescue groups. I decided to make an Instagram page to educate people about deafness by showing them how I communicate with Rhett (through the use of sign language), how I show him the world, how to approach a deaf dog, how to get their attention, etc. People are mind-blown he can live a normal life just like any other dog (or human, for that matter).

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

I have gotten followers who have messaged me I have inspired them to adopt a deaf dog. I often tell them, ‘You do not have to know sign language to adopt a deaf dog. It would be beneficial but made up hand signs work just as well.’ I hope people will educate themselves about deaf dogs and will value them as much as I do.

I love my life as a deaf person and the privilege I have to educate others regarding deafness. I hope to continue to impact and show the world I can do anything and so can they. Yes, I do struggle, but I don’t let it bring me down. I want people to know deaf and hard-of-hearing people can do things just like anyone else, except hear. We all have different ranges in hearing loss, so be patient with us if we do not hear you/understand you.

Fast forward to where I am today, I have continued to make it a mission of mine to make a difference in my world. I am currently an itinerant teacher for the deaf and hard-of-hearing students ranging from elementary school to high school. I am forever thankful for this job because I get to work with students who have some sort of hearing loss. Many of my students have never met another person with hearing loss, as they are the only deaf/hard-of-hearing students in their school. I love being able to relate to what my students are going through and be able to share my experiences with them. It is an amazing feeling to be able to be a resource and support system for them because growing up, those were the people who left a lasting impression in my life.”

Courtesy of Karlie Franke

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Karlie Franke from Texas.

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