On Being Hard-of-Hearing, Finding Identity, and Being a Mom.

Emi Sano
6 min readAug 15, 2023

I’m going to be a little more personal about myself rather than just a regular “mom life” post. I’m going to talk about my deafness and how I struggled to find my identity between the two worlds I grew up in. I promise the next article will be more mom-related.

Being Hard-of-Hearing/Deaf

So a little backstory, I was born with bilateral hearing loss. I had a birth defect with my middle ear bones just not connecting all the way. I can still hear a tiny fraction of sound from both ears, but I needed hearing aids to help me hear fully. When my parents found out, I was 4 years old. I was getting by with being able to hear the little sounds and whenever my parents talked loud enough.

For a while, my parents thought I had a behavior issue and would only pay attention if they yelled loudly enough. I still give them a hard time about that. Once they found out about my hearing loss, they immediately asked how they could help me succeed. The audiologist and my pediatrician agreed that hearing aids would be the best option. And for me, they were. I thrived with my hearing aids. I was able to communicate more effectively and understand the people around me. I finally got to hear songs, singing, and language.

I underwent speech therapy for a year or two, and it really helped solidify my “adaptation” to the hearing world. My teachers almost always forgot that I was deaf/hard of hearing.

In those days, it was known as “hearing impaired,” but times have changed, and it’s much better to be referred to as “hard of hearing” or just “deaf.”

Finding My Identity Between Two Worlds

I grew up in a hearing environment: my family, my school, my classmates — all hearing. I do recall having another Deaf student in my class who also wore hearing aids, but I only learned about it much later in life. She was always quiet, kept to herself, and I wish I had known so we could have been better friends.

Because, I felt alone.

Sure, I had friends and enjoyed the company of my family. But no one really understood what it was like to be me. Someone who was hard-of-hearing who could only hear half the conversation. Someone who was asking “What,” only to be met with “Never mind”.

It was a constant struggle to fit in and be like my peers when my Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was a reminder that I was different. If my hearing aid batteries died during class, I had to go to the nurse’s office to have them changed (by high school, I could change them at my desk). During sleepovers, I either waited until my friends fell asleep to turn off my hearing aids or risked ear pain by keeping them on overnight. I didn’t want to miss out on late-night conversations or early-morning giggles.

When I applied to Rochester Institute of Technology, it wasn’t my first choice — it wasn’t even a choice at first. I had planned to attend an art school in North Carolina, but the grants weren’t sufficient. My mom suggested applying to RIT because of its excellent film program and the Deaf college on campus with hearing aid support services. She believed it would be the best option, especially if I faced hearing aid issues while away from home.

Initially, I was hesitant to apply. I was apprehensive about being around other Deaf people. What if they didn’t like me? What if I didn’t meet their standards of being “deaf” enough? My mom encouraged me, emphasizing the support available and her concern that transitioning from an accommodated schooling to a non-accommodated one would be stressful. So, I applied and was accepted through the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, with the intention of pursuing a film degree at RIT.

NTID’s orientation week started two weeks earlier than the rest of the campus. As a result, when I first arrived at college, I was surrounded by Deaf students. Initially intimidating, my roommates were all hard of hearing like me, and we had all grown up in a “mainstream” environment — meaning we were raised in hearing families and attended public schools. We stuck together and ventured into the unknown Deaf community.

By the end of the two weeks, I couldn’t believe that I was actually scared to go to that school. I felt more heard — pun intended — and seen by my peers. They understood how it felt growing up being Deaf.

During my time at NTID/RIT, I began to have a better grasp of my identity. Being Deaf doesn’t necessarily mean complete deafness without any hearing devices. It’s an identity, a culture. When you’re Deaf, you’re part of a larger family. I learned American Sign Language (ASL) during my first year at NTID. I took three courses and also learned from my floor mates and classmates. Finally, I had a better understanding of the conversations happening around me, particularly from a visual perspective. I hadn’t realized the importance of subtitles until I attended NTID/RIT, where everything was captioned. The school valued open access to communication and learning, not just within NTID. I took advantage of note-takers and interpreters in the classroom.

After the first year, I transitioned to the RIT side of campus for the film program. Although my connection to NTID remained, my Deaf identity gradually faded as I delved deeper into the program and made more hearing friends. My ASL skills grew rusty by the time I graduated from college, and before having my baby, they were nearly nonexistent. At that point, I reverted to being Emi — a “hard-of-hearing/hearing person.”

Being a Mom

Entering parenthood was stressful, as I realized that I was indeed Deaf and would need to care for my baby through the night without my “ears.” The first night we had him at the hospital was terrifying. I kept my hearing aids on all night and was grateful I had packed extra batteries in case I needed to change them.

Upon returning home, my husband and I worked out a system. He would wake up when our baby cried and would alert me if I needed to feed him. He handled some nighttime changes for me. Having my mom's help during the first month was invaluable as I embraced motherhood and learned to adapt with my Deaf side.

As my baby grew, I started teaching him some signs to help with our communication. I wanted him to know ASL so that he could communicate with me even when I didn’t have my hearing aids on. We reached an understanding that mommy’s ears don’t work well first thing in the morning or at night.

I love that my baby knows ASL because we can communicate across a noisy environment. For example, at a hibachi restaurant he was sitting with his grandparents and became frightened of the fire. I told him “all done fire” in ASL when it was over and he signed back to me “all done fire” and I nodded and signed “yes”. In that moment, he seemed relieved. I took him outside briefly to calm down, but he was comforted by the fact that I understood his need and we could communicate effectively.

Now, he uses sign language to emphasize his points, and I couldn’t be prouder. I remind him that mommy can’t hear sometimes and I need him to speak louder or sign to me. He will do whatever he can to help me understand him. He is only 2.5 years old and he knows way more about being Deaf and what it means than I did at 18.

Embracing My Deaf Identity

I am embracing my Deaf identity more and more. I used to be really ashamed of telling people I wore hearing aids. Typically, their response was “I’m sorry,” or they displayed ignorance or pity. I didn’t want to be pitied, so I concealed it from my peers. Now, I’m making more of a conscious effort to remind people that I am Deaf, especially when I’m in social or professional situations, and even more so in front of my son.

I want my son to see his mom being proud of who she is and feel the same about himself.

--

--

Emi Sano

Emi Sano is a self-published author of “Voices: a short story collection” and YA novella “We Don’t Talk About That.” She freelances as a writer/blogger.