Deaf, Hearing, or In-Between: Struggles of Identity at Gallaudet University
By Jaime Kannan
Meredith Peruzzi can define herself easily, most of the time. She’s female, 28 years old, married, and a resident of Virginia. Labels get tricky, though, when you ask her whether she identifies as hearing or deaf. Peruzzi, a junior at Gallaudet University, said she struggles with this question frequently.
“I’ve always been a part of the deaf community,” said Peruzzi, who studied as a hearing student at Gallaudet before a scuba-diving accident left her hearing-imparied. “Everyone says it’s ironic that I was the most prepared for a hearing impaired life, and that I ended up deaf.”
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln officially signed the bill that created Gallaudet University. However, the school had started approximately ten years earlier when Amos Kendall donated two acres of land to create a school for the deaf and blind. Over the years, Gallaudet’s student body has grown in size. However, the mission to serve as a cultural center for the deaf has remained strong. According to Peruzzi, there is a definite split in the deaf community — either you went to Gallaudet or you did not.
Beyond Gallaudet, the deaf community as a whole, a divide based on a form of reverse discrimination exists, said Judy Fask, director of the deaf studies program at Holy Cross. Fask said hearing students in the deaf studies program are often taken aback that “audism,” or discrimination against the hearing, exists. Rather than sending deaf-studies students abroad, Fask sends her students to Gallaudet.
“Sending our students to Gallaudet puts them at a disadvantage,” Fask said, “By having them experience the language barrier, they can appreciate being in the minority.”
A Gallaudet spokeswoman, however, said there is no discrimination against hearing students and that information about hearing status is only collected for so the data is on hand. “It’s just for statistics, nobody really looks at the records” said Karen Evans of Gallaudet media relations.
Peruzzi agreed that there is not supposed to be a difference between hearing and deaf students – at least not officially. However, for the deaf community, “there is some sense of you’re in our world now,” she said.
This is especially ironic since Peruzzi began signing at the age of four, when she was hearing. Her babysitter was hearing impaired, and Peruzzi picked up American Sign Language as a means of communicating with her. Although she has siblings, none of them expressed the same interest in sign language.
Peruzzi graduated high school a year early and headed off to McDaniel College in Maryland. McDaniel, however, did not seem to fit her. After some time off, Peruzzi decided to enroll in Gallaudet University as a hearing student – upon enrolling at Gallaudet, she checked a box that said “hearing” on her permanent record. Despite this status, Gallaudet fit her. “This is the place that I was supposed to go the whole time,” Peruzzi said.
Hearing students enrolled full time at Gallaudet are referred to by the University as HUGS, or Hearing Undergraduate Students. These students complete a yearlong American Sign Language course, since many times the student doesn’t know sign language at all.
“There are coffee chats and group chats to encourage them to learn how to sign and practice. The new signers program really supports people who are not native signers,” said Evans, the school spokeswoman.
There are also a number of students who attend the university simply to learn sign language. Jen Sparrow, a student at American University, is one of those students. She enrolled in a 100-level course on sign language at the encouragement of some of her deaf friends. While a few students in her class were taking it out of necessity, as they were going deaf, most were hearing students.
“They were mostly hearing students and just wanted to learn a new skill,” said Sparrow.
In 2006, Peruzzi went scuba diving for the first time. A malfunction occurred, causing her eardrum to rupture and extensive damage to her inner ear. She lost ten decibels of hearing, officially qualifying her as hearing impaired.
Not to be deterred by a bad experience, Peruzzi signed up for scuba diving as an elective her first semester at Gallaudet. Again, her eardrums ruptured and damage was done to her inner ear. She was left even more impaired.
Or was she? Peruzzi was already enrolled at a school designed for the deaf and hearing impaired. She was fluent in sign language. Peruzzi made the choice after her second scuba accident to remove the “hearing” label from her permanent record. Yet, she’s not sure if she is hearing or not. She wears an aid, and works as a translator, something that she could not do if she was completely deaf.
As a deaf studies major, Peruzzi is forced to think about her identity every day. “We’re studying about ourselves. Everyone is a potential subject and there is a tendency to take the scholarly literature more personally because of it,” Peruzzi said.
The result? She feels pressure to decide, “Am I deaf or not?” It’s an interesting dynamic of having to prove that one is deaf enough. She frequently blogs about this difficulty saying, “Now think about being hard of hearing. You either can hear, or you can’t. You don’t get to have a middle ground. You are either hearing (but have some problems) or deaf (but hear really well). You have to pick one…”
She’ll readily admit that her journey to Gallaudet has not been a straightforward or easy one. However, finally she’s found the right place regardless of how she defines herself.
“Yes. That is me. Neither hearing nor Deaf. In the middle, ambiguous, indeterminate. It feels good to understand this,” she blogs in her most recent post titled, “Validation!”