The Traumatic Gift: Accepting Disability as Both a Trauma and a Gift

“Your hearing loss was a trauma. In fact, it is a recurring trauma – one that you experience each day.”

Huh? I thought.

I was sitting on my friend’s couch and shifted my gaze to the plain taupe walls and then to the trees outside the window.

No. People who are raped experience trauma. People who are returning from war zones experience trauma. After all, I had just given a TED talk that was viewed by over one million people, where I said that I believed my hearing loss was one of the greatest gifts that I had received. It had given me a career direction, both as a former lawyer and now as an inclusive, human centered designer. It had given me a cause to passionately advocate for. I could not look at it as a trauma. What would that mean?

But as the hours passed, the thought began to sink in. Trauma. The feeling of frustration that I encounter every day that I so skillfully tuck away in the back of my mind and in the bottom of my gut began surfacing again. And then, somehow, my voice got knocked out from me. I knew at the time that I should be posting to Twitter and Facebook; growing my brand from the TED talk. But each time that I sat down to write, I felt as if I could never dig deep enough into an issue; that I was just scratching the surface. Something was holding me back. Eventually I realized that it was because I was not allowing myself to dig deep enough into ME. I realized that I had never processed my hearing loss as a kid. And that I could not avoid it any longer if I wanted to succeed in my work.

When I lost my hearing at ten, I was too young to really know what this would mean for my life, for school, my work, and friendships. But I still had an instinct to desperately try to hang on to my so called ‘normalcy’ from before. I became skillful at hiding my hearing loss. I learned how to anticipate what people said. In school, I sat through class clueless while pretending I could follow along.

I also became an overachiever. Like many people with disabilities, I felt I had to not just be ‘normal’ but above and beyond normal. This is because we are constantly trying to prove that our disability does not limit us; that it does not change us or make us different. But the truth is, it does affect us and it does make our lives different.

Everyone has their own story. But for me, because I was a later-deafened kid in the 80s when there was no email or text messaging, it meant a lot of loneliness, missed connections, misperceptions, and anxiety in social situations. During the year after I lost my hearing, I lost my best friend. Before, we had been inseparable. In school, I scored a 28% on my first sociology test since losing my hearing. My normally dominant, extroverted personality changed into a shy shell of my former self. Right when everyone was going through the process of trying to fit in, I got hit with something that put a red flag above my head saying that I was different. I craved to connect with people but I also became increasingly anxious when those connections happened because often they failed due to misunderstandings, leaving me embarrassed. At the time, I felt as if it was me who was failing. But it was not me. It was the hearing-loss, masked me.

As I slowly got my voice back, what I have come to accept and realize is that there are both positive and negative aspects to my hearing loss. The negative is that we live in a world mostly designed around hearing people. Communication in almost every environment is a constant struggle for me. And to be quite honest, it stinks. But it is the design of the environment that disables me, not me. If I had lived on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1800s, I may have had the notion that I do not even have a disability. You see, everyone there knew sign language, deaf or not. Communication would have been effortless for me.

The positive is that companies such as Microsoft and other high-tech corporations are beginning to realize that difference equals value. Difference is a hidden capital that they are sitting on. This is because the unique way that people with disabilities experience the world helps them identify hidden needs. Take email. Did you know this was originally created to help the deaf communicate? Who would have thought people would rather type their conversations than just say them out loud on the telephone?

My deafness has also created skills that help me excel as a design thinker. I have exceptional observation skills because for the past 25 years, I have had to read body language daily allowing me to notice things that others never would. My constant need to adapt to any circumstance has made me excel at finding unique solutions to design problems.

My ultimate hope is that more companies will soon catch on to this untapped capital that people with disabilities bring, that they will see how people with disabilities can help them stay ahead of the innovation curve. Of course, it would also be nice to one day experience effortless communication with the hearing world. And, who knows, perhaps with speech recognition technology, the term ‘hearing world’ will even become a term of the past.