When I'm Excluded at Family Gatherings Because I'm Deaf
Recently, our cousin arranged for the family to get together on Zoom for my grandmother’s 99th birthday. Although I was hesitant, knowing I would not be able to understand anyone speaking because I am Deaf, I was hopeful for a sense of belonging in the family. It had been almost three years since I saw most of the cousins and aunts and uncles and cousins, so I hoped maybe, just maybe I would be more included and one or two people would have learned some signs by now.
At the Zoom get-together, I understood nothing except the few words my father managed to sign for me the best he could. Nobody waved. Some people sent a chat message saying, “Hi, Jenna” but that’s it. For 15 minutes I stayed on and smiled. I signed “Happy Birthday” while the rest of the family was singing whatever they were singing. My grandmother was on and seemed delighted but there was no direct communication. There is a live captioning option, but nobody turned it on.
After a while, it occurred to me that I should just wave goodbye and see what happened. So I waved. Nobody responded. So I left the room.
After this, I felt really sad. Sad because even virtually, my family could not include me and make the Zoom get-together accessible. I’ve been Deaf for 44 years. This is not new. This virtual meeting was just like every single time there is a family get together in person. Nobody has directly included me in the story of their lives — even when I ask. I could ask a thousand questions and nobody will talk with me the same way they do everyone else. Every word is oversimplified and they speak to me like a child. I may have a Master’s in Education, but I am not respected for my mind or opinions. I am never asked for advice. Never asked what I think. Never involved in group conversations.
This is why I don’t come to family get-togethers anymore. This is why for the past five years, I’ve refused to allow my youngest to see how I am treated by other family members — as an outcast and outsider. I do not want her to think this is normal or acceptable. I may share the same last name and blood, but I do not belong.
If a few people could learn a few signs, it would help. If a few people could write back and forth and have a good dialogue where we learn about each other and our lives, I might feel welcomed. If we could have a conversation worthy of someone who has intelligence, opinions and feelings, I’d feel more included. All that would make things so much better. Maybe I’d even come to a party again.
But for now, I just can’t. I can’t put myself through these feelings of isolation, being ignored, being talked to as if I have no education, while everyone else is having great long conversations about everything under the sun. I can’t allow myself to be treated that way. My mental health as a bipolar and Deaf woman has to be more important than this. And if the family will not change, then I will. Starting by not being present to feel the way I do. I will no longer be surrounded by people who could not care less and who are more interested in each other than me, no matter what I say or do.
So, to my family… I love you guys but I totally dislike what you do to me. I cannot understand why it’s not something you think about and act upon. I don’t know what I have to do to earn your respect, to be included, to be involved in what is going on.
This is not new. This is old. And so, if it’s important to you that I am a part of family get-togethers, put in some effort, OK? I put in so much effort to lipread and to speak, why can’t you do something, however little, to include me in the group?
Until that is answered and things change, I’ll see you when I see you.
Getty image by Jacob Lund.