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FOR FREE PEOPLE

Eli Steele for The Free Press writes on why he feels lucky being born deaf.
“In 1975, at the age of one, I was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss,” writes Eli Steele, pictured here as a baby with his father. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I Was Born Deaf. I Feel Lucky.

Life’s not fair and never will be. It’s up to you to make it work.

Recently, I was invited onto a podcast to discuss my latest documentary, Killing America. Emails were exchanged; the date was set. Then I mentioned that I would need to be able to lip-read during the recording: I’m deaf, and sometimes it is difficult for me to understand a stranger’s voice.

What happened next: I was ghosted.

A friend asked if I was angry. To my surprise, I said no.

My deafness taught me early that life is unfair. It just is. In 1975, at the age of one, I was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss. My deafness was bilateral, meaning both ears were affected, and the loss level for both was 95 dB (decibels), meaning I couldn’t hear any sound other than something like a gun firing near my ear, and even that was muffled. I had been born into a world of silence.

Back then, a lot of people assumed I would never learn to speak. My parents believed otherwise; thanks to them, the good people who invented technologies just in time for me to benefit from them, and a lot of hard work, I found my voice.

In my mid-twenties, I got a cochlear implant, which improved my hearing drastically. I still tend to rely on lip-reading, although I can get by without it. I know that makes it harder for podcasts to host me. Several months ago, I was invited onto Denver’s popular Ross Kaminsky Show to discuss a piece I had written about Claudine Gay for The Free Press. The interview was conducted over video, and the moment it started I was thrown off by the two-second delay between Ross’s voice and his lips. I bombed.

When Megyn Kelly hosted my father and I on her podcast to discuss our documentary, What Killed Michael Brown?, I didn’t know until the last second that I would not see her face—the conversation was audio-only. I have never concentrated so hard in my life. It turned out to be one of my best interviews.

I appreciate those podcasters, such as Benjamin Boyce, who have gone to the effort of adding captions after interviewing me. I have a deaf accent, because I couldn’t hear sounds in the mid- to high-frequency range when I was learning to speak, including some of the more crucial consonants. Sometimes I leave s off the end of plural words, for instance, and I cannot pronounce the difference between fat and vat.

Do I wish my life was easier? That I could speak easily, with a voice like my father’s? Sure. Yet the fact that I can do these podcasts at all feels like a miracle of sorts. That’s why, despite being ghosted, I still feel blessed: if I had been born a couple of decades earlier, in a different place, or with different parents, I would never have had the opportunity to speak at all, let alone to thousands of people.

My young parents knew nothing of deafness when I was diagnosed with it. They feared my future would be limited and thought of the worst stereotypes: deaf people who were eternally mute or ended up living in psychiatric hospitals. When I was an infant, they visited several institutional deaf schools where sign language was the main method of communication—and did not like what they saw. Pupils lived in dormitories, seeing their families infrequently, but what scared my parents the most was how far behind they were in their education. There was a sense of hopelessness in these schools, a belief that the students could never be more than their deafness. 

I was luckier. My parents discovered that an innovative “oral” school for the deaf had just opened near our home in San Jose—a school that believed deaf children could learn to speak and understand speech. It was called Project IDEA—named after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that codified, in 1975, the right of all American children to a public education, regardless of disability status. The curriculum was inspired by the revolutionary—and now ubiquitous—methods of Daniel Ling, who taught deaf children to understand words by breaking them down into oo, ee, ah, m, s, and sh.

I started at Project IDEA at 18 months old, equipped with hearing aids so big that my grandmother sewed up a bra from scratch to hold them inside my shirt.

For three years, I remained silent.

Imagine how much faith my parents had. They talked to me all day, hoping I would respond. They used to put my hand on their throats, to feel their voice boxes vibrate as they made sound; then they would put my hand on my own throat, hoping I would get the idea and make sound too. People called my parents abusive and delusional for trying to get me to learn how to speak. They told my parents to accept that my life would be limited, my only job a form of manual labor that would not require communication. 

My mother worried; her father-in-law, a man born to slaves, did not. She recently asked me if I remembered a photograph, taken in his Seattle garden when I was two years old, after I had picked out the biggest squash and came over to show it off. At that moment, she said, he told her: “You don’t have to worry about Eli—he will do just fine.”

He was right. One day, when I was about four, my mother was cutting a tomato when she sliced her finger and said, “Ow.”

“Ow,” I repeated back to her.

That was my first word.

Eli Steele for The Free Press writes on why he feels lucky being born deaf.
At the “oral” school for the deaf, Eli (far left) found his ability to speak improved so rapidly that by first grade he was “mainstreamed” into his local elementary school.

After that, I improved so rapidly that by first grade I was “mainstreamed” into my local elementary school. Hearing-aid technology had improved, so I could wear a smaller, behind-the-ear set. Even so, elementary school was tough. I couldn’t keep up with the lessons, and often had to stay after school for two to three hours every day to catch up. On top of that, I had four or more hours of speech therapy every week.

And I was often left out. I couldn’t casually call up friends outside school because there was no way for me to use a telephone. I also couldn’t watch movies, because I wasn’t able to lip-read two-dimensional faces. When other kids threw around quotes like “E.T. phone home,” my sister had to explain them to me.

I was also relentlessly bullied. Some of my classmates called me a “deaf retard,” mocked my accent, and flicked my hearing aids.

Knowing this, my parents often wondered if they’d made a mistake. They once asked me if I wanted to go to a deaf school, to be with “my kind”—and I said yes. But when I woke up the next morning, I had changed my mind. I could not have articulated it at that time, but I understood that to separate from mainstream society was to sell myself short.

Besides, this was the eighties: it sometimes felt like there was an incredible technological development every day, widening my access to the world. One day, in 1984, my parents came home with a closed-captioning box, and we hooked it up to the TV: suddenly, I could read the lines of every character in The A-Team. The next day at school, I could not stop saying, “I pity the fool!”

Shortly after that, my parents took me to the AT&T store to pick up a TDD, or telecommunications device for the deaf. I spelled out messages on this typewriter-like device, and it sent electronic signals for each letter to anyone who also had a TDD. For the first time, I could call a close friend who also had one, and I remember our conversations lasting hours. And by 1987, the California Relay Service had come into being, meaning I could type out my message to an operator who then read it out to whoever I called.

Now, we live in a world of texting and messaging—things that most people take for granted. Not me. I still remember how hard it once was to communicate without being able to hear. America has more activists than ever before, making posters reminding everyone to “be kind,” and arguing for “visibility”—but the best way to actually help people, and include them, is to invent the tools they need.

But you can’t help people without making it clear that they have to help themselves. 

From first to twelfth grade, I was fortunate to have the same teacher, Sandra, who made sure I understood everything in class. But there were times when I took her support for granted. In junior high, my grades were mediocre—not because of my deafness but because I’d started goofing off.

What happened next would never fly today. The superintendent of the school district threatened to take my teacher away from me. They were spending a fortune on her salary, he said, and during a recession. He told me my deafness was not an excuse for bad grades.

Knowing my teacher was right, I shaped up—and got into Claremont McKenna College, with the confidence that I could overcome any obstacle.

When my cochlear implant was first turned on, I did not have that crying-for-joy reaction you see on social media. Instead, I was like, fuck. I was overwhelmed with all the sound I could now hear. The air-conditioning above. My shoes scraping the gray carpet below. The clicks from the audiologist’s keyboard. 

I was 25 years old, and I went from hearing about 15 percent of what was going on around me to about 85 percent. But the noises coming through my implant bore no similarities to the noises that had come through my hearing aids. I was like a baby all over again; I would have to relearn a whole new world of sound. Even my name was new.

So I went back to auditory-verbal therapy. Twice a week I visited Sylvia, my therapist, with my sister, Loni, learning to separate ma from na and pa from ka and cha. At home, my sister spent hours practicing with me. After six months, in the year 2000, I was able to have the first phone call in my life—with my mother, on Mother’s Day. 

Like I said, life is unfair. It always will be. My own, however, is proof that miraculous things happen when people help you to help yourself. I was raised by parents and educators who never allowed me to use my deafness as an excuse or a crutch. They pointed me in the right direction by having high expectations of me. In doing so, they gave me the gift of agency. My life was mine to live, sink or swim.

That is why, when I was ghosted by that podcaster, I didn’t feel anger. There will always be people like that—but don’t they serve as a reminder of all the good we have?

Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is “Killing America.” Find him on Substack at Man of Steele and on X @Hebro_Steele

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