The Moment My Dad Taught Me Not to Be Ashamed of Disability
My father was born with hearing loss. In elementary school he was seated in the back of the class with a box that supposedly amplified sound so he could hear better. As many of you know, putting the child with hearing loss in the back of the class is possibly the worst idea ever. He spent years being pulled out to go to speech therapy while in elementary school. They even tried an experimental radiation treatment on my dad to cure his hearing problems.
Sometimes as a kid, he would sit on the curb of the street and wonder why he was born with a disability and wished it would go away.
I was fortunate to be born to a father who had these experiences.
When I was 2 years old I began showing signs of a central auditory processing disorder in the form of being a “late talker.” In third grade I was diagnosed with learning disabilities. Around the same time I began to stutter, which, like learning disabilities, is neurological in nature. I had a really difficult time in school and it wore on my self-worth and view of who I was and what I had to offer to the world.
Unlike many children with disabilities, I was born into a family where I wasn’t “special.” I was normal. My working middle-class parents already had a blueprint for understanding disability which was, “It is something you have so you deal with it.”
My parents showed me that the teachers who didn’t always accommodate me or instill self-esteem were full of pooh-pooh (trying to keep this clean for a family website). Above all, my dad knew what it felt like to feel isolated and he even still validates how difficult it was for me as a kid and relates to it personally. Because of his own experience as a child, my father knew what it took to have a child with disabilities.
My grandfather, who wasn’t necessarily warmest guy in the world, drove my dad over 40 miles in a 1949 Oldsmobile to get him the best possible assistance for his hearing loss. Between my own father’s day job and his night job doing janitorial work, he would drive me 40 miles to see my favorite speech therapist, Elaine. Of course he took the opportunity to nap in the waiting room, but he was there with me. Once, after waking him up, Elaine said, “You know, Jerry (my dad’s name), there are other speech therapists closer to you.” He replied “Yeah, but Nina likes you.”
My dad showed me having a disability was just another aspect of life and there wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about. When I was in the sixth grade he coached my Catholic Youth Organization girls’ softball team (see video for story). He announced to the girls, “I’m deaf and you’re just going to have to speak up when you are talking to me.”
Horrified he would talk about this in the open, I waited for the girls to laugh. Then, I realized they completely didn’t care. He wasn’t ashamed of his own disability, nor was he ashamed of mine. Now when I do stand up comedy or public speaking, one of the first things I convey to people is, “I stutter, and you’re just going to have to wait patiently for all my brilliant ideas.” This is a direct result of my father being my role model.
I realize not all you dads of kids with disabilities are lucky enough to have a disability yourself, but you can still model the pride, courage and hope my dad did. You will mess up sometimes and you will lose it. My family likes to laugh at the time when my father was teaching my brother how to use drafting tools and he threw an eraser across the room in frustration. What is more important than perfection is being authentic in your relationship with your child, with or without disabilities, and instilling the values you want your child to believe about themselves.
There are going to be peers, teachers and passersby who will make them feel badly about themselves. This means it’s your job to protect them and make them feel both special and normal simultaneously.
For all the dads who tell the jerks at the next table “What are you looking at?” when their child stimming away, happy Father’s Day!
For all the dads who bring us to our favorite fast food restaurant after whatever kind of therapy we have to go to, thank you!
For all the dads of kids with disabilities who coach our football teams to make sure a “wannabe Bill Belichick” isn’t undoing all the work you and your family have done, we love you!
We may not always be able to express it, but you have given us strength.
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