Lessons in Self-Advocacy


Since RSCON3 wrapped up, Erin Breedlove has asked me several times to check out one of her recent posts. It’s about what people with disabilities hope their professors will keep in mind during the semester to help them meet their fullest potential. Erin points out the unique challenges an individual with a disability experiences and asks for patience and understanding.

Erin had approached me about sharing my thoughts on how this applies to my young learners. I’m so glad I finally had time to read her post. I’ll encourage you to do the same, and check out my comments, by clicking here.

As I was reading Erin’s post, I suddenly was struck by my memories of growing up with hearing loss. As a young child, I had a series of ear infections that sapped a significant percentage of my hearing. To this day, I have trouble hearing certain letter distinctions (mainly letters that have a rhyming buddy in the alphabet), as well as whispers and high pitched sounds. I figured out how to game the system (at least in my mind). For instance, if my parents said something from the other room, rather than go through the routine of asking what they said, I’d usually just answer “Yes,” genius that I was. Can you imagine the trouble I could have gotten into answering affirmative to whatever they said that I didn’t hear? “Matthew, did you hit your sister?” “Matthew, are you still playing Nintendo and not doing your homework?” “Matthew, are you a Yankees fan?” These are not questions I would ever answer “Yes” to! But I didn’t want to make a big deal out of my hearing. It was embarrassing.

My elementary teachers all knew about this and accommodated me accordingly. Middle school was a little different – many teachers with whom I never developed a relationship. I never had the confidence to tell them they need to speak louder or allow me to sit near them (this was in the days when teachers sat on a stool and yapped while we listened.)

Come high school, I was confident enough to say, “What?” if I didn’t hear something, but that was mainly with teachers. If my friends were speaking inaudibly and laughing, I laughed with them. I nodded with empathy if the situation seemed to warrant it.

By college, I was a man, an adult, I was feeling like I could definitely share with professors my special circumstance if necessary. I did when I had to, regardless of the kind of relationship we had. Some of my friends knew, but there was still that embarrassment factor, and I couldn’t share it with someone with whom I wasn’t comfortable.

This all came to a head at one of my internships. My superior never liked me, and made no secret of it. Who knows why? Doesn’t matter. One day, he gave me an assignment, with lots of new information and in a fairly brisk fashion, from his desk, looking at the computer. It was difficult for me to hear, so I said, mortified, “I’m sorry, but can you please repeat what you said?” He looked up from his computer, looked at me with derision, and said, “I just told you everything you need to know. Were you not listening?” I bit my tongue really hard, stood up shaking, walked to his desk and said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I happen to have a fair amount of hearing loss so I don’t always hear everything.” He was indignant that I never told him before – I’m sure because I made him feel like a fool. It wasn’t my intention, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some satisfaction out of it.

I hope my students – and those who Erin writes about – will be wiser than me when advocating for themselves. Moving to an older grade than last year will give me opportunities to help them learn how to do this. It’s important for students who are self-aware enough to do so to speak up for themselves early and often. This can help avoid difficult situations and allow the good stuff to flourish.

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