Deaf Rage by Ross Showalter
In his essay “Deaf Rage,” Ross Showalter charts his development from a deaf person to a Deaf person, part of a politically aware community and culture with a shared language. The essay opens with the word “We”: The emotional standoff between the only two deaf students (“we”) in his dorm and their hearing RA introduces the university’s failed promise of an “immersive cultural and linguistic environment” for the practice of American Sign Language by deaf and hearing signers. It was a failure he didn’t forget. “Western Oregon University was in the past, but it remains my past. Western Oregon taught me about my feelings toward hearing people’s discomfort, their biases. It was the beginning of my identity as a Deaf person. It was the beginning of my defiance of a world that often seeks to belittle.”
How does a writer convey rage and the buildup of rage in the face of ignorance and belittlement? “I go back and forth, trying to find the balance between exposition and scene,” Showalter writes in his author’s note. Creative nonfiction guru Lee Guttkind was famous for his “Yellow Test”: when his students marked “scenes—that is, the places with characters and action, where things happen” with yellow highlighters, they discovered that essays with the most yellow were the most effective. Showalter dramatizes the complexities of his hearing loss (“Most hearing people…want a simple answer”) by showing a visit to the audiologist, and the frustrations of his childhood through scenes with his teacher and ASL interpreter. When he closes with the inability of the hearing to understand what he’s experienced, he dramatizes an encounter with a well-meaning hearing person, one of his few friends remaining from Western Oregon after he’s transferred to another university. Sarah sits “opposite” him on the sofa in his living room during her visit, signing. “We’ve moved on,” she says, making assumptions about “we” that his experiences belie. The closing scene resonates. What will hearing readers take away from the essay? Will they simply move on, or will they be uncomfortable enough to attempt to bridge that divide? “How do you want to see me?” he asks. “How much of an image of me do you have built up already in your own mind, and are you willing to tear it down?” —CRAFT
Content Warnings—ableism, audism
We corner our resident assistant right outside her dorm room. Her back presses flat against the door. Her hands come up. She is ready to escape, but she is also ready to give a reason.
I am one of two deaf students in the community dorm at Western Oregon University, and the two of us are frustrated. We both want to talk to the RA about the same thing. My deaf dormmate and I want a change. We need a change. It is winter quarter, a deep dark February in Monmouth, Oregon, and we have found ourselves on the other side of a gulf. Our hearing dormmates dominate the space with their screams of laughter; their English speech is often delivered staccato and quick through their bright smiles. It is overwhelming and impossible to understand. I do not want my freshman year of college to be marked by loneliness.
I was placed in Ackerman Hall, the newest dorm building on campus. Western Oregon’s website boasts, even today, that Ackerman is one of the most environmentally sustainable residence halls in the country. I entered it for the first time in September 2012 and felt a tickle of unease at how sterile it seemed. Something about it looked off, too perfect. The dorm room doors stood too close together. The elevator moved sluggishly. My parents were reluctant to leave.
The community dorm that I was placed in was formally named the Arbuthnot Wing, on the third floor of Ackerman. It was casually referred to as “Third Arbuthnot” and, more frequently, as the ASL dorm. Western Oregon’s website promises that in Third Arbuthnot you could practice American Sign Language in an immersive cultural and linguistic environment, with deaf and hearing signers of all levels of competency.
I had been in enough signing environments to believe that promise. I had gone to Deaf summer camps, one centered around Christianity, the other around leadership. I even went across the country to Gallaudet University, the world’s only Deaf university, for a two-week college-prep camp; both hearing and deaf peers dissolved in tears on our last day. I knew it was possible to have a space where everyone signed because I’d already experienced it.
In my year living in the ASL dorm, barely half of the ASL dorm’s residents are studying to be ASL interpreters or teachers of the Deaf. The RA herself isn’t—but she knows the other deaf person, Rebecca, and claimed she knew ASL and Deaf culture because of Rebecca; after all, they’d grown up together in Bend, Oregon.
I am a stranger to the RA, but I am deaf. I want to work with deaf people and become an English teacher in a Deaf school. I want to be in a space where ASL is used, not just as a classroom goal but as a language with its communication standards and culture. I want the ASL dorm to live up to its promise.
The RA barely pays attention to me. Most of her signed defense is to Rebecca. “You know how complicated learning ASL was for me growing up, you know that the dormmates you two have aren’t always interested in signing 24/7, you know that this dorm is a place, needs to be a place, for everyone who has been assigned a living space here.”
Rebecca and I don’t budge. We have been promised a space where ASL and access are widespread. We have been promised a sanctuary, a pocket where we can be ourselves—yet it hangs beyond our grasp. Even now, in this moment, spoken English drifts from the common area to my hearing aids.
Our frustration cuts through the RA’s shaky logic. We won’t be soothed by it. And, sooner rather than later, the RA runs out of reasons.
“You know what, I have class tomorrow,” the RA signs to us. “I can’t keep doing this.” She turns her back on us. She sticks her key in the door’s lock, turns, and then she’s gone. We stare after her, where she was seconds ago.
I feel an awful weight in my gut. It is the feeling of defeat. My hands become fists. I cross my arms across my chest and try to ignore the feeling inside me.
Rebecca’s mouth trembles. Her face gets red. Her eyes fill with tears and they spill down her cheeks. I gather her in a hug and feel her sobs in my sternum.
Down the hallway, a dormmate, hearing, mouths drama at me. I flip her off.
In my dorm room, Rebecca blows her nose, wipes away the wet on her cheeks from her eyes. We sit on my bed. She leans against the wall, her knees pressed against her chest. I lean on my elbow in front of her, my legs outstretched on the comforter.
“She doesn’t care,” Rebecca signs as tears continue to leak from her eyes. “She doesn’t care about us.”
I rub her shin. “What do you want to do?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I don’t know. I just wish she cared.”
I don’t sign more. The defeat has disappeared. In its place is an emotion that threatens to overwhelm my entire being, like a fire, if I let it.
I had gone to Western Oregon University because I wanted to reinvent myself. I knew people at both Gallaudet and Rochester Institute of Technology, colleges with programs that catered to deaf people. I had family in California, and, because of that, shrugged off the idea of attending California State University, Northridge. Western Oregon held promise because I barely knew anything about the university or the small rural town of Monmouth. It was a place where I thought I could be anyone I wanted.
What I hadn’t been prepared for was the idea of sanctuary being just that: an idea. I had brought my ideas of sanctuary to Western Oregon University, and they had been rejected. Instead of a space where ASL was predominant and deaf people felt included, the space was overrun with hearing people and spoken English. ASL remained on the sidelines.
Rebecca and I remain in my dorm room. Even as her tears dry, even as she returns to her own dorm room half an hour later, the fire inside me stays, wholly familiar yet terrifying in its potency.
My hearing loss is a sensorineural loss; the loss of hearing is caused by damage to the inner ear system. The damage, the hearing loss, is bilateral—meaning, I have hearing loss in both ears. I am severely deaf in both ears.
But people often ask for more information. They ask if I can quantify it. “How much can you hear?” is a common question I receive, even today.
I talk with an audiologist about my hearing loss. I sit in a windowless room, facing a two-way mirror. I can only see myself, and the feeling of being interrogated never fails to enter the room with me. An audiologist-in-training screws earphones into my ear canals, the soft foam filling up every millimeter of space.
Then they leave the room to conduct the test. The door closes shut behind them; silence, the feeling of interrogation, and our shared expectations remain my only company. Every year, I take a test that I always fail. The silence feels heavier in this room, because I know already I am missing out. I stare at myself in the mirror, but I know the audiologist is on the other side, fiddling with dials and buttons, making sounds.
I just have to wait for the sounds to come within my hearing range.
The first sound I hear, no matter the frequency or the loudness, always startles me. It is a series of loud beeps, always the same pitch. They come sharp and quick like a knife into flesh. I raise my hand, signaling that I’ve heard that sound, and we proceed. Silence and interrogation and expectation, until the next series of audible beeps, until the next, until the next, until the door opens and someone announces the test is over.
The audiogram is split horizontally into different levels, stacked on top of each other. The top is normal. At the bottom is profound, meaning the subject doesn’t hear anything.
Most of the marks made on my hearing test are near the bottom. Severe to profound hearing loss. But I can hear some: marks made in the higher decibel range do go up into the moderate loss range. Lower pitches, like a man’s voice, cut crystal clear through silence.
My reception of sound will be different outside a room where there is nothing but silence. My reception of sound will be different if I am not giving my full focus, my full attention.
If I cannot hear like any other person, then what is my attention worth?
The audiologist who administered the test to me said that 80% hearing loss was a good measurement—but she cautioned against flattening hearing down.
“Hearing is complicated,” she told me, when I was in my early twenties and craving a simple answer. “You hear well at one level, you don’t on another level. You can hear a loud sound in a pitch that you don’t hear when the same pitch comes quietly. One number won’t capture all of that.”
Most hearing people, even those with the best of intentions, don’t have time for the messiness of my deafness, the seemingly contradictory nature of what I can hear and can’t hear. They want a simple answer. Because it’s not just about hearing and sound. It never is. People want to measure your adaptability, your comfort, your ways of being in a world that seems poised to twist away from you, and often does.
If I tell people I have 80% hearing loss, that is too simple a scenario. If I delve into the nuance of it, then I won’t stop talking, and then the hearing person always regrets asking the question, sooner or later.
How much can I hear? Enough, I tell them. Enough to fit in, enough to be able to adapt, enough to be able to lip-read and use hearing aids to supplement whatever I can’t pick off the mouth. Unless they don’t enunciate. Unless they talk fast. Unless they speak so quietly that my hearing aids pick up nothing. I hear as much as they want me to hear.
How much work should I do? I always want to ask in return. How do you want to see me? How much of an image of me do you have built up already in your own mind, and are you willing to tear it down?
Spring quarter at Western Oregon University comes with dread. Another deaf person, older and prickly, has moved into the community dorm. He keeps to himself. We both proclaimed early in the quarter that we wanted to be writers, and he stared at me like I would stare at an opponent in a competition. There are three deaf folks in the ASL dorm now, but there is no strength in our growing numbers. Rebecca avoids the common area. I try to shoulder the responsibility of being present, but the people who frequent the common area don’t know sign, and barely practice.
Another deaf friend, one who lives off-campus, complains one day about the ASL interpreters in training at Western Oregon who say they want Deaf power—a shorthand for letting Deaf people claim agency and autonomy.
“Bitch, shut up,” she says over coffee, signing to an imagined representation of those ASL interpreters. “You don’t know anything about Deaf power.”
I laugh. But my friend is serious.
“It’s true,” she insists. “Hearing people will never truly commit to the idea of Deaf power because, when they’re able to actually do something, they’re too used to where they are to do anything. They like having power. They like having control.”
I can’t shake my friend’s words after we hug each other goodbye. They sit in me, an ever-present reminder, a hard press of truth.
A banner hangs outside the community dorm entrance for Third Arbuthnot, and, on the banner, the RA had drawn the handshape for “I love you.” The thumb, index finger, and pinkie finger point up in the air. The other two press against the palm.
I resist the urge to tear the banner apart. It feels like a fraud.
One spring morning, our RA sits on a couch in the common area, getting ready for a run. I perch on the table several feet away, gazing out the window. It is a chilly morning; fog has its fingers curled around buildings, and I admire how alien our campus looks.
The RA laces up her shoes and calls out something to another dormmate. Everyone in the common area can hear and understand it, except me.
“What was that?” I ask the RA.
She signs and talks to me, “I wasn’t talking to you.” Her tone is as chilly as the morning outside our window.
“But you’re in the common area,” I argue. “Shouldn’t I be able to be a part of any conversation that takes place out here?”
“Oh my god,” the RA says. And I know immediately that I won’t understand her, whatever her response. I don’t understand her. She is not someone who understands inclusivity. She picks and chooses who will be involved in this community dorm, and I am not one of the chosen.
“You know what, forget it.” I leave the common area. My dorm neighbor’s door is propped open, and Sarah is there. Sarah is hearing. Sarah is a sweet, patient person, one who tries to sign even when I slip up, even when I don’t sign back in return. I ask if I can come in.
The RA comes after me, barging into Sarah’s room. Her eyes are ablaze with anger. She shows me her shaking hands.
“How dare you,” she signs. “You think you’re entitled to just understand everything? You don’t put in effort toward this community. You don’t have respect for anyone. I don’t like your attitude.”
I want to laugh. I want to yell right back at her, at how misguided her point of view is. She can’t understand where I am coming from. She is hearing, and she has the choice to understand everything. She has the choice to put in effort or not. I don’t. She has more power than I do, and she refuses to see it.
I say nothing. I turn away from her. Sarah exhales noisily and leaves her own dorm room. It is just me and the RA, in a dorm room that is not mine, not hers, not either of ours.
“Are you not going to answer me?” the RA signs.
“I have nothing to say,” I reply.
“You will answer for this.” The RA stalks off. She trips over the doorstop and dislodges it. The door closes behind her.
My hands shake too. I try to shake off the adrenaline, the heat festering in my sternum. It comes into focus, the center of this heat and emotion. I have been blamed and excluded when it wasn’t just me. It couldn’t just be me. I have been feeling overwhelmed and uncertain this entire school year, and now, I feel like the heat inside me could burn the world to a crisp.
This is what rage is. This is what it means to have Deaf rage, when you live in a world that only sees the ways you are wrong and dismisses you, instead of including you.
My rage started when I was young. When I was eight, I transferred from a day school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to my local school district. I was the only deaf kid in my local school district. Every year, I would clash with an interpreter, in one way or another. I was opinionated, headstrong, and impatient. I loved nothing more than to get under my interpreters’ skins and discover ways to make them squirm.
It was a way to get even because I hated that I needed someone to help me out. I hated the fact that I had a shadow, someone who followed me around, someone who was known as “Ross’s person.” I hated that my circumstances had to be this way—if things had to be this way, then I would fuck around with the way things were.
This was before I knew the word rage. This was before I understood frustration.
I was eleven when I was taken out of the classroom and into the hallway for the first time. The ASL interpreter had been talking with my teacher instead of interpreting what was going on, and I was confused. I was missing out on information.
I expressed my confusion about this, signing to the interpreter, and she didn’t respond to me. She got up and went to the teacher. Her mouth was close to the teacher’s ear, and anxiety burbled in my stomach. My name was called. I was taken out for a talk.
“She’s my colleague,” the teacher said out in the hallway, the interpreter beside her. “We’re working together. Most of the time, we work together for you, but sometimes I just need someone else to help me with this or that. She can provide that.”
I nodded—understanding still hung out of reach. I was ushered back into the classroom with the other students. I sat at the front of the class, in my designated seat. I always sat in front of the class. There was a structure to things, and I didn’t understand the structure and why it existed. I only understood that I must not disrupt this structure. The lesson was learned. The interpreter sat in front of me and got back to work. The issue was forgotten.
My confusion didn’t fade. It only shrank. My anxiety wasn’t soothed. It became something a little more volatile.
I discovered the term “Deaf rage” when I learned about the Deaf artist Christine Sun Kim in the late 2010s, years after Western Oregon University. Kim creates pie charts that describe encounters with hearing ignorance. The experiences range from being handed a Braille menu at a restaurant to travel announcements being relayed only in spoken English.
I giggled when I saw the caption for reflex rage: “getting hit with a bag of peanuts by a flight attendant who tries to get our attention.” I sobered up when I realized that getting hit by peanuts had probably happened to Kim. And I had probably experienced that same kind of reflex rage too, even if the circumstances weren’t the same. Even if I didn’t know, until now, how to describe it.
I saw Kim’s pie charts and her charcoal capital lettering and felt something in me click, like a key sliding into a lock and turning.
I found in Kim’s art a way to put language to what I was feeling. Whenever I go out in the world, whenever I interact with someone unfamiliar, I am prepared to feel some spark of frustration, anger, or despair. It is a pleasant surprise when, sometimes, I am proven wrong.
It is profoundly disappointing when I hope to be proven wrong and I am not.
I flunk out of Western Oregon University. For years, I go between white-hot anger and defeated pacifism, but the reason is the same.
There is no point in asking for a safe space because no such idea exists. There are only pockets of relief, pockets where the bubble of community holds for only hours before it bursts.
When I was at Western Oregon University, I learned how to ask for myself. I learned how to demand something that, for all rights and purposes, I should be able to get. I should be able to understand something. I should have no barriers between myself and the community I want to join.
I also learned that the pathway is never complicated only by barriers. It’s complicated by the people who enforce those barriers, whether consciously or subconsciously. Because of those enforcers, the idea of a safe space remains abstract. We carry around our experiences and our points of view and let those ideas dictate the interactions between us—instead of compromising and coming to an agreement. No conflict can truly be resolved this way.
Years later, my dad gives me a memory card. “There are pictures on there you might want,” he tells me. The pictures are of me at WOU. More specifically, I am hiking with Sarah and other dormmates at Silver Falls State Park, a place an hour’s drive from Monmouth; there are smiling faces and waterfalls and green bursts of foliage.
I don’t look like a kid in those pictures. I don’t look nineteen. There is tension in my smile, and, years later, I understand why. I was starting to understand my place in the world even as I tried my hardest to transcend that space. I was trying to resist the inevitable.
I was trying to suppress my own anger about the situation I found myself in.
I am a student at another university, Portland State University, when Sarah texts me and says she is passing through Oregon, and she wants to meet up. By then, it has been five years since Western Oregon. I say yes and brace myself.
The visit is lovely. Sarah and I sit on my couch. She is a teacher. I am a writer. The only mention of our shared past, the time when we were dorm-room neighbors, is from me, and it is a joke in passing—something about how far removed we are from that small liberal arts university. Sarah shrugs.
“That was a long time ago,” she signs. “We’ve moved on.”
Western Oregon University was in the past, but it remains my past. Western Oregon taught me about my feelings toward hearing people’s discomfort, their biases. It was the beginning of my identity as a Deaf person. It was the beginning of my defiance of a world that often seeks to belittle.
I have not spoken to the RA since I left. I can count on one hand the number of people from Western Oregon University who I remain in touch with today. One of them now visits from California and sits opposite me, on my couch.
The past influences our present, even when we don’t want it to.
I don’t badger Sarah about Western Oregon. Our experiences will never be the same. She will never see things the way I do. Instead, I ask her about her family in California.
ROSS SHOWALTER’s stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Catapult, Literary Hub, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing courses with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @rosshowalter.
Featured image by K8 courtesy of Unsplash