From the first moment I witnessed someone laughing at my father for his deaf accent, I realized people could be incredibly cruel. And I quickly learned that life wasn’t fair. My father was born deaf and didn’t grow up in a deaf community, so he struggled to communicate with hearing people. He had to learn to read lips and speak without being able to hear his own voice. I saw children and adults ridicule his deaf accent and openly stare at his cochlear implants. Even companies would turn him down for positions after he was honest about his deafness.
I’ve never seen him use his disability as an excuse for anything, but I did watch so many others make their own excuses simply because they didn’t want to deal with his deafness. Being raised by someone who dealt with discrimination is why I grew up to value fairness so much. But fairness is rarely enforced in life, and that continues to endlessly frustrate me.
Although I will never experience what my father suffered, watching others mistreat him disheartened me because I was unable to make the prejudices all go away. The moments I watched people disrespect my father are permanently ingrained in my memories and are the only times I have ever wanted to unleash my anger onto people.
Once, at a neighbor’s holiday party, I watched a woman demean my father’s accent in front of everyone. I couldn’t believe that she could be so bold as to say this in front of me and the other guests. I’m pretty sure she knew I was his daughter, so I was appalled at hearing this adult belittle my father in my presence. In the moment, I chose to remain silent. I wrongly believed it was uncouth for a 16-year-old to retort to a grown-up, despite my overwhelmingly distraught feelings.
I will never experience this kind of discrimination because I am not deaf. The mere fact that I can hear, while my father cannot without his cochlear implants, wrongly sets us miles apart from each other in society. When I speak, I face the possibility of being ridiculed for my opinions, but my father won’t even have the chance to be recognized because his accent takes precedence in others’ judgments of him.
This distinction between me and my father made me realize that he wasn’t the invincible hero every child imagines their parent to be. At times as a child, I felt like our roles were reversed, like when he would ask me to order pizza on the phone for him or when I would have to use sign language to spell a word he couldn’t understand after I had said it repeatedly. I didn’t understand the greater implications of that dynamic as a child — that was just the way it was.
I never thought about how it might feel to have someone else speak for you, until now. I also never realized that instead of speaking for my father, I should have been speaking in his defense.
As a child, I was naively trying to be helpful. But now, I realize how debilitating it was, how I didn’t need to make it easier for anyone. People should have taken time to listen to him, to try to understand him instead of looking to the 6-year-old for help.
Now, as a young adult about to graduate from college, I am frantically applying to as many jobs as I can. The job market is one riddled with discrimination, but I doubt I’ll ever experience much of it. I never thought about my dad’s job-hunting until now, when applications are becoming a part of my daily routine. For my father, it’s different. There are aspects of job applications that I never gave much thought to, but now I wonder how different it is for him. I wonder if he checks yes on the disability question. I wonder if he asks for interpreters at interviews or hopes he will be able to read the interviewer’s lips well. I wonder how he feels when he is rejected, knowing it wasn’t for a lack of merit or experience, but for his deafness. I like to think there are people who don’t ascribe to discrimination, but I know there are people who will refuse to hire my father simply because he is deaf.
Out of all things, a TV episode brutally confirmed the reality of deaf discrimination I’ve watched my father face. In a 2011 episode on ABC’s “What Would You Do?” actors took on the roles of discriminating managers, and deaf students came into a coffee shop to fill out job applications. The experiment was conducted to see if anyone would stand up for the applicants — only one customer did. My cynicism prevented me from thinking a lone customer would actually defend the students, but what shocked me more than anything was the advice of one customer who worked in human resources to the acting manager:
“You don’t have to hire her, but you need to be careful how you communicate that,” she said. “This is a very litigious society.”
I was dumbfounded. The program revealed so much about my father’s life that I had never given much thought to. It explained how my father’s resume would be evaluated, yet as soon as he explained he couldn’t do a phone interview or if he called the company from a relay service, the position was miraculously filled. This cycle was unending, and I felt helpless when my dad would tell me about the fishy explanations employers gave him about positions or the emails he sent that were never answered. Just like anyone else, my dad has dreams too, a family he loves and needs to provide for. He deserves to live the way he wants without the ill-conceived restrictions discrimination places on him. I know my father is exceptionally qualified, so it pains me to see him continuously dismissed so easily merely because he cannot hear.
I wish I could go back in time and stand up for my father when he was mistreated. I wish I could look that woman in the face and ask her what was wrong with her. I wish I could personally speak with the employers who discriminate against my father, but I can’t. All I can do is use my voice from now on to make up for my silence.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.