American Sign Language of the word 'equal'
Photo by Annetc on Depositphotos

“You are going to be completely deaf.”

I’ll never forget when the doctor told me that. It felt like time had stopped. I had suspected my hearing test would return those results, but the doctor’s statement made it real.  

Throughout my life, I have had problems with my ears. I have suffered from painful, persistent and sometimes antibiotic-resistant ear infections. I have had at least a dozen different ear tubes placed in my ears, including one that is still in my right ear. 

I have had surgeries on my ears to remove scar tissue and remove cysts. Prior to my incarceration, my audiologist wanted me to get a bone-anchored hearing aid, a device that helps you hear through bone conductions of sound vibrations to the inner ear. Doctors have advocated for me to get a cochlear implant in prison, but the Missouri Department of Corrections will not pay for this. 

It was not until recent years that my hearing loss got to the point that it is today. I now rely on face-to-face contact to read peoples’ lips. I also use American Sign Language (ASL) and write things down to communicate. I can still talk because I was not born deaf, but I can’t tell how loud or quiet I speak. I’ve had to learn how to navigate a new world after leaving one I thought I would live in forever. 

I have realized the world is not designed for deaf or hard-of-hearing folks. You can see the evidence every day. 

When people wake up to alarm clocks or cellphone alarms, alarms are typically set for sound. When you go through the drive-thru at your local fast food restaurant, you order by talking. When you go to college, classes are taught verbally. When you work a job, most interactions are verbal. When you interact with people on a daily basis, don’t you assume they can hear you?  

In an environment like prison, where life is often unpredictable, being able to hear is very necessary. Beyond the unpredictable, there are important verbal announcements every day. Prison classes are also taught verbally.

Losing my hearing made me sad for a while. I felt sorry for myself. But I recently met another incarcerated person who has given me hope and strength. This person, whose preferred name is Owa, was born deaf. While Owa has never been able to hear and communicates through ASL, I have never seen her let her lack of hearing get her down. I still get frustrated with my hearing loss, but now I no longer view it as a weakness.  

The times that I still get frustrated are when people assume I can hear them, and they get upset because they mistakenly believe I am ignoring them. While I can sometimes read lips, a lot of people do not enunciate well enough to read their lips. When Owa sees I am frustrated, she lets me know it will be OK. 

Just as there is conversational etiquette, there is also sign language etiquette. When you see two people signing, staring at their conversation and reading it is rude. When you are signing with someone, looking away from the person who is signing is rude. Not signing clearly can make it hard to understand what is being said. 

Essentially what you would not do in verbal conversations you would not do in sign language conversations. I still have so much to learn about sign language and deaf culture, but I’m excited to learn and grow in a different world than the one I was born into.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Lexie Handlang

Lexie Handling is a transgender writer working on bettering herself, and learning how to crochet (which is not as easy as she first thought). She is incarcerated in Missouri.