Deafness and Bullying

Girl burying her head in her hands above a laptop

The recent news went viral about a deaf student in a school in Nebraska who was bullied by having his backpack items dumped into a toilet. Sadly, it’s not the first or the only example that deaf people are bullied by hearing peers – in school, at work, and in public. Bullying also happens within the deaf and hard of hearing community.

I can relate to that as I had experienced this firsthand by being bullied not only by some deaf and hearing peers, but especially by a hearing teacher in a school for the deaf as well as by some administrators at a college where I was denied proper communication access services. I attended different types of schools throughout my education from grade school to graduate school.

When I started my education at a school for the deaf, my experience was not bad until I was transferred to a class with the teacher that was considered the best in the school. Sadly, some of her kids were not treating me nicely (for several reasons – one of them me being the youngest kid in class, for example), but the worst thing was that the teacher was verbally abusing me and other students – for the lack of the better word. The 2.5 years with that class were the worst in my education. I came home crying with my hands shaking and dreaded going to school every day. There were many times when the teacher yelled at me and other students for no good reason.

My last straw was when doing community services with my classmates – as part of the 2-3 week program in Russia for all middle and high school students in early summer. Our class job was to feed rabbits – the school was residential and had a farm and a garden to maintain. In order to get to the rabbit hutch, you would need to go through bushes and the path had piles of wooden boards with nails. I shared my concerns with my teacher about this and asked if the boards could be removed. In the response, she yelled at me to stop being a wimp. Now you can imagine how she was yelling at me before that about many different things.

I could not do anything about it and tried my best not to step on nails. I also have some balance problems – that’s why I was worried about those boards. One day I stepped on a big and rusty nail wearing sandals after losing my balance. The next thing I remember was waking up in a school nurse’s office and then waiting for my parents to rush me to the hospital. My foot had to be disinfected and stitched. I could not walk for about a week if not longer.

That incident was also my last day at the school for the deaf. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but my grandmother also informed me that I would be transferred to a regular school just right across her house (where I’d dreamed of attending for a long time). While I was nervous about diving into the unknown world of hearing kids and teachers as the only deaf student, I got relieved not to deal with that nightmare teacher anymore. I remember my grandmother and I visiting the school for the deaf again after the incident for paperwork and to talk to my officially former teacher. I was surprised to learn that she was disappointed with me leaving the school but she wished me the best. I also checked the farm to find that all those wooden boards were removed after my incident. Years later I learned from a former deaf classmate that the teacher eventually apologized to everyone at one of the school reunions.

My experience with bullying didn’t stop in mainstream schools – especially in middle classes. It was frustrating for me, but I learned to speak up more and had some good friends, a supportive family and accommodating teachers who helped me go through school as the only deaf student. Those who were trying to pick on me were taken care of most of the time. Earlier this year I got a message from a former hearing classmate who surprised me by apologizing to me for picking on me in past and telling me how guilty he felt all those years and asked me for forgiveness. I never expected the apology as I realized that many school kids were young and stupid, so I forgave them all and moved on, but I appreciated his kind note.

As for my experience with higher education, I was sad to find out that a college that I attended for undergraduate studies was not very friendly to oral and cueing deaf students by denying other types of communication access services. I was forced to use sign language interpreters when I barely knew any sign language and was denied speech to text services that was a better fit for me. Also, some signing Deaf people on the campus were questioning my decision to get a cochlear implant (it was different back then as I was one of about 15 students with CI at that college and now there are about 450 of them). As much as I loved college life, using sign language, and mingling with both deaf and hearing students, I felt very frustrated with being denied proper access services in classes.

Later on as I was meeting more deaf and hard of hearing people from all walks of their lives as well as hearing parents of deaf kids, I found it sad and frustrating about many various controversies within the deaf and hard of hearing community – for example: between staunch oralists and signers, between hearing aid and cochlear implant users, between certain cochlear implant brands, and so on. There are some hearing parents looking down on deaf people who sign and some signing deaf people criticizing hearing parents for not using sign language with their deaf kids. So it makes it really difficult for me sometimes to share my opinions about deafness without upsetting anyone and I feel more comfortable with those who are more open minded even with some of their opinions being different from mine. 

Bullying happens not only in school, but also at work and in public. Many of us experience discrimination in workplace and at events when being denied communication access services or being dismissed. We also experience being dismissed by some representatives of “diversity and inclusion” groups. For example, during the Q&A session of a recent diversity event, a moderator who is a female C-level executive (after giving a presentation about her frustrations about being in the male-dominated field) told me I was wasting her time by commenting that people with disabilities are rarely if ever mentioned in “diversity and inclusion” topics and are often excluded from the equation and actually cut me short before I had a chance to finish.

This topic is not something that I like to talk about because we deaf and hard of hearing people want to enjoy our lives like everyone else, but we also cannot ignore certain problems related to deafness. Letting go of old problems does not prevent new problems. We need to speak up and spread more awareness. That’s why I provide consulting and training to organizations. We need not only to stop bullying of deaf people by hearing people and to ask hearing people to make their world accessible and inclusive to us, but also to stop the division within the deaf and hard of hearing community and to respect each other’s different communication abilities and preferences.