Proud to be Deaf - Dvar Torah Inclusion Shabbat 2/26/22 (Guest Post-Rebecca Weintraub)

Proud to be Deaf - Dvar Torah Inclusion Shabbat 2/26/22
Written and Delivered by Rebecca Weintraub

“Baruch Atah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, po-kayach ivreem”

“Praised are you Adonai our Gd, who rules the Universe, giving sight to the blind.” Every shachriit service we recite these words of the birkot hashachar. One of fifteen blessings, we are reminded of Gds presence in the various acts of waking up. In this specific bracha, opening our eyes is likened to Hashem giving sight to the blind. And every morning, as I put my “ears in,” my hearing aid and cochlear processor, I am thanking the doctors, the audiologists, the surgeons, the scientists, Gd for giving hearing to the deaf.

I would like you to imagine for a moment that you are on an airplane. Your ears are not adjusting well to the pressure change and they are clogged. You are sitting right by the engine and all you can “hear” is the loud engine roaring. **DING** The pilot begins to speak. But you are only understanding a few words. You aren’t sure whether the pilot is announcing turbulence, whether it is time for the descent, or perhaps the pilot is speaking to the flight attendants. It can be quite frustrating, and overwhelming to be in that situation of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Now imagine that you are 4.5 years old. You are hearing the world as you were just a moment ago on that plane. Your parents voices are muffled. Your siblings point out animals and their sounds, but you do not hear them. That child that you are envisioning, is me. I received my first pair of hearing aids 6 months shy of entering kindergarten. While my hearing was not as poor as it would become later in life, I struggled with hearing. Over the years I underwent many hearing tests. So many times I sat in a booth and was asked to

<Say loudly> “say the word ‘airplane’ (airplane),

<normal voice> Say the word ‘cupcake,’ (cupcake?)

<Softly> say the word ‘baseball.” (Shrug shoulder).

I sat in front of speech therapists who would show me where to place my tongue for various sounds. From first through 12th grades, I had a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing who I would see for one class period a day. I both loved and hated going to her. I enjoyed the days when we played games, and hated the days when we reviewed assignments, vocabulary words, was tested in preparation for my IEP meetings. I wore and carried an FM system, a microphone that the teacher wore. I wore a loop around my neck that connected to a small box clipped somewhere on my clothing. Almost like a precursor to bluetooth, back 30 years ago, I turned my hearing aids onto a special setting, and was able to focus solely on the lesson. I received additional accommodations, such as extra time for tests, ability to have words defined that were not related to the material and note takers. I was allowed modifications such as the ability to sit in the front even when the rest of the class rotated their assigned seat over the course of the year, and exemptions such as the option to not take a specific class.

My parents described me as a very outgoing toddler. I would go to anyone in synagogue. And yet, now I identify myself as an introvert. I have always struggled with introducing myself to someone new, being at a party or restaurant, simply, being part of a group environment. I despise having to give speeches <give a look like hmm>, and struggle with major performance and social anxiety. And yet, how much of my personality was destined to change, and how much is a result of being hard of hearing. Is it possible that those 4.5 years of living a life like I was underwater trying to hear those on the deck of the pool, but not knowing any differently, meant that when I received my first pair of hearing aids I became aware of how I was different. Did it make me question if I was understanding correctly, make me shy to sing along with music, be weary to answer questions in class. I struggled with the idea that being hard of hearing was part of my identity, while I was desperate to be like everyone else. In high school I stopped wearing the FM system because it was bulky, needed to be charged daily, and meant I could not hear my classmates during class discussions. I didn’t like being different, of having to hand the teacher the system for every class.

Oprah Winfrey coined having an “aha moment” as, "A moment of sudden inspiration, insight, recognition or comprehension.” While my aha moment was not quite so sudden, but took several years, I recognize now that college was the time when I accepted what I could not change. I was hard of hearing, whether I wanted to be or not. If you wanted to be my friend, my boyfriend, my roommate, you had to accept me for everything. Gd says in Leviticus that, “You shall not insult the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind.” The only one who was putting stumbling blocks in my way was myself. Receiving accommodations was not othering me, but putting me on an equal playing field as my peers. I reveled in the idea that I in college I had a doorbell outside my door with a flashing light inside the bedroom, so I would know when a friend was waiting for me. While studying, I was able to take my hearing aids out and focus in the silence. My roommates did not wake me up in the middle of the night when they came home late. In fact, I asked a friend once if being friends with someone who was hard of hearing was challenging. She said, “Honestly no, trying to find food for a picky eater was more challenging, and oftentimes I forget that you wear hearing aids.” I began to realize that being hard of hearing and wearing hearing aids was as much a part of me as being Jewish and being a woman. I was being recognized for my ABILITIES, despite my DISability.

And yet, even after focusing my college senior art show on my hearing aids, on sound and how it can be perceived, almost 16 years later, I still struggled with the realization that I was a candidate for a cochlear implant. For all that I taught, for all that I preached to my clients, my students, my family and friends, I hadn’t truly accepted it for myself. My hearing aids have literally been my lifeline for over 30 years. While surgery had a high success rate, there was no guarantee. All of the what-ifs spiraled in my head. As many of you know, my first surgery was not successful. To put it in layman’s terms, the implant is made up of a number of electrodes. And half of the electrodes had slipped out. I would need a second surgery. I was optimistic and thought that the first one was a fluke. We charged forward with the second surgery, and despite a horrendous recovery with horrific vertigo and nausea, I thought things were progressing. I heard something. It didn’t seem to be what I was supposed to be hearing, but I also had been told by so many people that it would take time. When the pandemic hit, I wasn’t able to have my appointments, and I wasn’t able to put to words that things did not seem right.

It took almost a year to accept that the second surgery had failed and I needed to see a new surgeon and risk the possibility of another surgery. We were angry, we were upset, we were confused. We had so many questions. Would that surgery even be successful? Obviously it was my decision, as it had been all along. I was reminded that when Gd commanded Moshe to free the Israelites from slavery, Moshe wavered. He pleaded with Gd saying that he was not a man of words, which we now understand was that he was uncomfortable because he had a stutter. Hashem responded, "Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak…” I knew that I had my support system by my side. I had my family, my friends, congregants, people who I didn’t even know who were rooting for me. I also had my faith that it could be fixed. I can get through this, just as Moshe worked WITH his stutter rather than against it. It is taking me time. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

To make things more complicated, during all of this, the pandemic hit. Masks became mandatory, in order to curb the spread of COVID. What does it mean for people like me, who read lips, or others who utilize sign language and therefore rely on facial expressions, in addition to wearing hearing aids or cochlear processors? Brenda, Schertz, a lecturer of American Sign Language at Cornell University explained that it truly is a challenge. She said, “Going into the grocery store, or the bank or really any other public place, we are heavily dependent on facial expression and visual cues on peoples’ faces, and some of us can lip-read… and no longer do we have access to that, because everyone has masks on.” Going to the doctor’s office has been difficult. What are they asking me? Do they want my insurance card, or my credit card? Are they asking what symptoms Hannah has, or what urgent care I took her to? I have avoided being social or doing errands so that I did not have to interact with other people, which in turn didn’t help my spouse, children, or even my own mental health.

The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, 2.5 billion people are projected to have some degree of hearing loss. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 25 percent for those aged 55 to 64, and then 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. Half of the people sitting in this room, will most likely, if they haven’t already, lose their hearing and benefit from a hearing aid.

We just read in today’s parsha Vayakhel, that all members of the community were needed. In a d’var torah written by Melinda Jones, she noted that, “When we look at the Torah’s description of building the mishkan- the Tabernacle to house the Tablets of Law- here and elsewhere, it is striking that this task is dealt with in such detail and at great length. The very many different tasks involved in its building also means that there is a role for each and every member of Bnei Israel. Every skill and every person is needed- independent of matters such as gender or disability.” We live in a community, not solitude. It is not solely up to the individual with a disability to work to integrate into society, but just as equally important for those who are able-bodied to be more accommodating, and accepting so that we can welcome everyone as they are and what they can contribute to society.

There are many things that you can do to help your loved ones, congregants, or even strangers with a hearing impairment. Facing the individual when speaking makes it clear to whom you are speaking, and allows the individual to “read” your lips. So many times Phil will walk out of the room as he is starting a conversation with me, or bend down to put something in the dishwasher mid-conversation. He knows that he wasn’t heard correctly, based on my facial expressions, a delay in response, or sometimes an answer that doesn’t even make sense. In reviewing Facebook, I found a time when Phil asked me, “do we know how Hannah is doing? I replied, “We have strawberry ice cream.” Obviously, that was not the answer he was expecting. I encourage you, as I do to Phil, to not give up. You might need to repeat, or rephrase what you said, but never,raise your voice, as shouting only distorts the words, and will be implied as rude or angry. Speaking clearly and naturally is the way to go.

We are blessed to live in a world when texting and FaceTiming is available. Phil will FaceTime me, when he would normally call anyone else. I am then able to see his face, his lips, and the sound of his voice travels directly into my ears via bluetooth. Utilize technology as much as you are able.

Sometimes, listening and hearing all day is truly exhausting. Have you ever been on a zoom session or a in really long work call, and been so tired afterwards? Listening fatigue is a normal consequence of listening to sounds for extended periods of time. It is your brain’s way of saying, “I need a rest!” Yet, for people like myself, the extra challenge of focusing, and concentrating to hear, means the fatigue can set in earlier, and with less stimuli than people with normal hearing. This is more evident these days when my brain is working so hard to learn the new sounds. This is when texting, or emailing is a wonderful option. Can things get lost in translation, as you lose context, leading to false impressions, misconstrued sarcasm or cause anxiety, absolutely. But, it’s a convenient way of communicating, and takes way less concentration.

Hearing aids served as my lifeline for 38 years, and as of now, I feel confident in saying that the the cochlear implant is now my lifeline. I am hearing so much more. I am aware of new sounds like the toaster timer ticking. I am more present in conversations as I can keep up with the fast paced conversations. Losing your hearing can be scary, I don’t minimize how difficult it can be for someone to lose their hearing later in life. With kindness, patience and understanding, it can make the process more tolerable. John Limnidis, an actor in the movie Children of a Lesser God said, “Deafness is not a handicap. It’s a culture, a language and I’m proud to be deaf.”

Thank you. Shabbat Shalom.