True Story: I Was Raised By Deaf Parents

This is just one of our many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have been through interesting/challenging/amazing things. My fantastic friend Lovel (who I visited during Mardi Gras) has been kind enough to tell us about life growing up with two deaf parents. Amazing, no?How did your parents meet?
They were both going to the deaf schools here in Louisiana. My dad was going to the black deaf school and my mom was going to the white one. Yes, there were two deaf schools and yes there was still segregation. Silly, I know. But the year they were in 11th grade, the two schools integrated and that’s how they met each other. My dad was the dope-dealing black football star and my mom was this nerdy pious white girl. They started dating shortly after the schools merged and somewhere late in their senior year they got pregnant with me.

Is there a particularly large deaf population in Lafayette? Why?
I don’t think it’s particularly large, but when both your parents are deaf you tend to know anyone and everyone who’s deaf in this town. Most deaf people here come from generations of deaf relatives intermarrying or marrying hearing cousins – my grandparents were 5th cousins. (Thankfully my mom broke with tradition and married well outside her family allowing me and my brother to be hearing.) Because of this, Lafayette has a strong deaf community with many deaf events and several deaf organizations. Of course, this leads to more people moving to this area and more families having kids who are deaf. It’s a cycle that’s true in a lot of small cities with sizable minority communities.

Did you learn to sign or speak first?Definitely sign, as my mother reminds me all the time. All babies would learn to sign first, as they don’t have the vocal structures conducive to speech. It’s easier for them to express themselves with their hands. They’re not going to be preforming Shakespeare, but they can say “food” or “drink” or “I pooped my pants come clean this!” (Okay that last one’s a stretch it’s mostly the word for “poop”, which is making the “B” sign in the air, and waving it back and forth)

How old were you when you realized that your parents were different?
Kindergarten. Up until I went to school, the only other kids I hung out with were the kids of my parents’ deaf friends. They, like me, were hearing but their parents were deaf so we were exactly alike. But when I got to Maurice Elementary I was the only one in that situation and was quickly besieged with questions about ‘what was wrong’ with my parents. It wasn’t until I got a bit older when I realized just how different my family was and just how hard it was living with deaf parents.

How did having deaf parents effect you and your brother?For one thing, it gave us a unique skill set that looks great on a resume! It’s also made us more tolerant. But for the most part, I’d have to say it forced us to grow up a lot quicker than our peers. Being dragged everywhere your parents went so that you could interpret for them (everything from doctor’s appointments to bankruptcy court) tends to have that effect. I was learning how to spell appendectomy long before I mastered the word house. We were part of very grownup things and witnessed all those painfully boring things adults do behind closed doors that most people never see until they’re in college. It’s definitely prepared me for the paperwork that is involved with adulthood. It’s a blessing and a curse.

How did people in the community react to your family?
They had no problem with the whole deaf thing, they had more of a problem with the whole interracial-relationship thing (small town in Louisiana.) Everyone knew my dad because he worked for the city doing maintenance and water treatment. Being the very congenial guy that he is, he quickly grew on everyone. Granted, most people thought he was dumb because he was deaf. When he quickly passed all the certification and finished all his work before everyone else they stopped being quite so friendly and were a bit more envious.

People also thought we were a lot poorer than we actually were. I remember that every year around Thanksgiving the local Catholic church (which we never went to because we went to the all-deaf Catholic church) would bring us a basket of “fixin’s” never knowing that we already had a full pantry because my mother had gone shopping that very same day to get ready for the feast. We always took the basket graciously and then laughed very hard after we had closed the door. Why should we correct them on their ignorance? As long as it made them feel good that they had done a kind thing!

What are the benefits of being raised by deaf parents?I got to experience another culture than most people never see. Deaf culture is a very vibrant and dynamic entity, mostly because their language is always changing and new words are always being invented. The culture is hugely varied and very complex. From the power of deaf poetry and performance art, to the little known cult of promiscuity that exists, and to the major deaf organizations in every town and every state – it’s a many and varied thing.

Also, like I said before, I was granted privy to many adult things long before I needed to know about them. I understood how to set up a bank account and why I needed to start saving early and planning for retirement and even how to buy a house. I knew all of this at age 14 and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Any advice for those of us interacting with deaf people for the first time?When a deaf person says “I’m deaf” (as opposed to “I can’t hear you”) please do not shout at the deaf person. If you shout, two thing will happen:
1) The deaf person will look at you like you’re a complete moron
2) You will feel like a complete ass because the deaf person still doesn’t understand what you’re saying and now you’ve just revealed your ignorance.

When a deaf person says “I’m deaf” just smile hold up your index finger, indicating that you want them to wait, and pull out a piece of paper and a pen. It will be a lot easier for both of you to communicate this way.

Also? When you see people communicating in sign language, please don’t stare. It’s okay to politely glance and be intrigued, but please do not continue to gawk at them. It’s really uncomfortable to talk to someone while another person is staring at you, and 9 times out of 10 the signers will start talking about you and you wouldn’t like what they’d have to say.

Do any of you have deaf friends or family members? Any questions for Lovell?

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  1. Jessika

    I learned to sign as a hearing adult via a friend, her family and later intense studies. One thing to remember as a deaf person, as for hearing not to gawk, is for a deaf couple not to cast or gossip about those around them commenting on looks or whatever among other custoemrs while having coffee etc. Though unlikely that someone in the immediate surrounding will know sign, it is as off putting as gawking. As I signed that I wear arm warmers if I want too as we were leaving.

  2. love, S

    Love this True Story. It's one of my favourites 🙂 I find Sign fascinating and I'm gradually picking it up… as I can finger spell… What do you think about taking a course to learn how to sign?

  3. Sonja

    I can't help but watch sign when I see people signing in conversation because it's really beautiful to look at… but yes, I do my best not to stare!

  4. Lisa Grace

    This was really interesting, thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    And I've always wanted to learn how to sign, how difficult do you think it would be for an adult to learn?

  5. Melanie

    My little brother is deaf. He lost his hearing after an asymptomatic ear infection at around two years old.

    Our whole family learned sign language (SEE, then he later learned ASL) and I still have a fairly basic grasp of it despite the fact that I moved away (for college, then marriage and the real world) almost eight years ago.

    Growing up, he went to the same public schools as hearing children; he just had an interpreter and speech therapy. He's now almost 20 (holy cow!) and a sophomore at RIT in Rochester, NY. He's a really smart kid and I'm proud of him. 🙂

  6. Kelly

    I'm almost completely deaf, but since my whole family's hearing, I didn't learn any sign language till I went to school (regular public schools). My family never did learn sign language, and I don't know any deaf people, nor am I very good at sign language–so I just lipread. I found this story fascinating; it's the opposite of my situation, plus I've always found deaf culture to be really interesting. People are always surprised when I tell them there's a whole deaf culture–although not as surprised as they are when they find out I'm deaf! I get by very well, haha.

  7. Melissa R

    Oh my gosh, I totally know what you mean by being dragged everywhere to interpret for parents. Being a kid and learning things way early since there is a major miscommunication between hearing and deaf people. And people talking way louder than they need to because they think "deaf" means "yell." And everyone knowing everyone in the deaf community, is a blessing and a curse [haha]. CODA (Children Of Deaf Adults) all the way!!

    It's never too late to learn ASL… as long as you have someone to practice with, you could pick it up so quickly.

    • Anonymous

      I also grew up with deaf parents they were wonderful my mom would sleep with her hand in the crib so she knew when I moved and would wake up and give me a bottle or change my diaper I learned sign language just like some other child would learn a second language in their home my parents took very good care of me and now that they’re gone I will miss them very much I learned a lot about being death and spoke full sign language to my parents and all there death friends

  8. Raquel

    Excellent story!

    I can also relate to the 'being dragged everywhere' thing. As a child and teenager my mother and I moved around a lot. I was always very quick to pick up on languages, and Mum's grasp of languages extends to English and about three words in German haha. So, I used to have to go to the bank with her, the supermarket, the tax department etc. etc.

  9. Briel79

    I love this true story series you have going on! keep 'em coming! 🙂

  10. teresa

    This is really interesting, thanks!

    Related: You can youtube it as well, another hearing woman who taught her (hearing) babies to sign has put a bunch of very very cute videos up. It's such a good idea!

  11. Erin

    I really loved this; eye-opening and intriguing.
    –these interviews are one of the highlights of my week, just so you know. 🙂

  12. Danielle

    Great story! I learned ASL in high school, and deaf culture is awesome! Wish I had kept it up, though..

  13. Kumoai

    Whoa! I'm kinda shocked this got such a response. Thanks guys for reading it! For all of you who want to learn, trust me there's a class near you! It just takes the balls to go and take the class. No matter where you are in the US there's a class near you! Just google it! It's just like learning any other language. Actually it's easier since you already know the grammar structure you just need to learn the signs. With just a few ASL friends and some practice you'll be signing in no time! And who knows you may end up being picked up by the cute deafie you've got your eye on!

  14. Anonymous

    I was glad to see this interview 🙂 My older brother is deaf, we all use ASL. Growing up it always upset me how rude people are with their staring! Just because we are using sign language does not give you license to stare with gaping mouths! Also, most profoundly deaf people do not read lips, just because you talk loud and move your lips in an exaggerated fashion, does not mean they will have any idea what you are saying.

  15. lovetravel

    Thanks you for your kind word. It true what you mention. One thing is that I would love to meet you one day. I would aslo like for you life your head up and be proud yourself as CODA and just ignore those who don't know a thing or 2 about deaf. Thanks again

  16. Confused Twenty-Something

    I just came upon this True Story, and it's interesting. However, I would like to add to her advice for hearing people when communicating with deaf people – don't assume that they know sign language or that they will not be able to understand you. I am profoundly deaf, but I have a cochlear implant, which I've had since I was 14. I learned sign language as a small child, but once I entered public school, I quickly stopped using it. I know the alphabet and that is about it. I do lipread, but I also hear very well with my implant. I wish hearing people who know sign language would not immediately start using sign language when meeting a deaf person – ask first – because it can be very awkward when people sign to me and I have to tell them I don't know any sign language. I am very hesitant to tell people that I am deaf right away – I usually assume that they can figure it out quickly or I wait until I've known them for a bit, because I want them to judge me for who I am and not for my deafness. That is all – it can be a weird subject for me. I occupy a place in between both worlds – the hearing and the deaf. I am not a part of the deaf community at all and don't really have a desire to be, but I can never fully be a part of the hearing world.

    All that to say – thanks for posting this. I love your True Stories; they are so interesting!

  17. Anonymous

    I'm curious, how did you learn to speak English if it was not spoken to you by your parents? I'm doing a paper for my bilingual studies and it was a question that popped into my head.

  18. Anonymous

    I have a brother'n law who is deaf. He just told us that him and his girlfriend are going to have a baby. He lost his hearing due to medication and hers is genetic. They both are very stressed at this point. Is their any advice you could give me to try to help them cope the realization right now. My boyfriend and I have a child together already and we know the stresses of having a baby, but we ate here to help in anyway we can, even after the baby is born.

  19. jim

    I had deaf parents and grew up in the 50’s it wasn’t that easy for 5 children of deaf parents in a small town in east Texas, we were treated as freaks, People are very mean and especially back then, they never saw anyone do sign language and we were very vocal about it calling my parents deaf and dumb, they were not dumb.

  20. Anonymous

    Growing up with deaf parents and three uncles that are deaf was very hard going up. That’s just put it like this every time someone called my parents oh my uncle’s deaf and dumb it was a big argument I hate when they call deaf people dumb. And when I told my parents they call them that they flipped out. One thing I have to say I love my mother so much but I wish I could just hear her say to me I love you that’s the only thing that I wish I had to hear.

  21. joan

    I need some help I don’t have deaf parents! Just a deaf Mom and Dad left when I was 2. So I am left with a single mother raising 4 children but being the youngest and having health issues as a tot I was forced to be the one learning more than needed and signing better than all my older siblings to help myself. I made phone calls to Dr’s and hospitals at the age of 5. I was the best communicator for my mother by the time I was 9 so I went to every appointment for her as well as mine and my siblings that were older than me. Long story short I have 2 kids married for 24 years now and I am so tired of being the one for everyone to turn to and ask for help when I had nobody but me to help myself, I see all these posts and stories how kids of both parents being deaf but nothing of a single mother and being the youngest and made the family interpreter and the one to ask financial help and being the head of the family I am not and never was capable of being! Nobody in my mother’s family were deaf or cared to learn sign language let alone understand we were robbed of our childhood and we were outcasts I school and socially. Yet they claimed to have their own kids and husbands wives etc to care for and we were on our own to help our mother. Yes there was 4 of us, but like I said I had childhood illnesses that I stayed ho,e and everyone went off to school and I made phone calls and dealt with my issues since I was 5 years old! How does a 5 year old even understand the illness and treatment with no adult help or cooperation? I just want to see more about children of single deaf parents and the struggles that can relate. The constant teasing and never fitting in and then people and professionals talking to a child they like are retarded is unacceptable. The constant feeling of you have to be strong and the voice and know everything just for yourself and 5 other people at the age of 5 and beyond is ridiculous and unacceptable for anyone when there are so many resources for help but never introduced to that. But as a grown ass woman with family and a life nobody sees how tired I am how exhausting my life has been. My need for someone to take care of me, but can’t let happen since I have been doing this since I was too young to remember. We all have voices and resources so where is the resource for me I am tired I feel like I am letting my mother and siblings down But I know I have been let down since I was conceived!

  22. Cindy

    I know this post was written 8 years ago and your post, Joan, was written a year ago…I hope you see my reply. I was a hearing child born to a deaf father and a hearing mother. My mother was intermittent on accepting my father’s deafness. She was easily irritated at him and degraded him often which led to frequent fights and fits of angry/frustration on his part. This led to my brother and me accompanying him on most of his ventures out to help him with his transactions. (He was a large scale farmer and frequently did business with people in many other towns). Back in the 60’s-70’s, many people assumed my brilliant father was stupid until they got to know him or (big smile) he got one over on them because they severely underestimated him–which they probably deserved. My brother and I spent a large part of our childhood being embarrassed by his outbursts and arguing because he would either be frustrated or misunderstand something and we would need to jump in as kids and ‘fix’ it. Later in life, I lost my own hearing and became deaf myself. Now my kids do the same for me at times. Here’s the thing… it all, I learned eventually and now my kids do because I am able to use my “older age” experience to teach them that there is a higher sense of compassion and humility to helping others. You learned it, as I did, at a young age. Parents do the best they can with what they have at the time. Back then society was grossly unfair to people who were ‘different’ and they lived in a perpetual state of shame and frustration. Our parents never set out to harm us. In their actions, we ended up learning how others struggle, including ourselves and in that is compassion for others and ourselves. Living with anger controls you. I would rather have compassion control me.

  23. Ruby

    my parents are deaf and I’m only 10, no one in my school has deaf parents… most people respect that i have deaf parents and they know its hard for me but some people are disrespectful and just laugh… i understand what you’re going through because people always stare whenever me and my parents talk.. but its funny because the people who stare dont know if me and my parents are going to talk about them staring 🙂

    But I’ve got to say that its brilliant to learn BSL (british sign language) and i think every school should learn it! In my school i own a BSL Club so i can teach people it! Loads of people come everyday and they find it fascinating but sometimes sad because some people laugh but i just ignore and sometimes i… kick them out hehe 🙂

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