Advocate For Yourself

I remember hearing those words fifteen years ago when I was in elementary school. I was in a classroom where the few Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) students of the school were bunched up to get tailored advice from staff members who knew sign language. The speech teacher who said those words was reminding us that as we get older, we would need to take the initiative to secure accommodations.

Fifteen years later, my mind consistently replays that phrase, and I am amazed at the importance of advocating for myself now that I successfully (by some standards) went through college and now have a “real” job. (I know being a graduate student doesn’t count, but please pretend it does.)

If I had to evaluate myself on my ability to advocate for myself on a scale of one to ten, where a one means that I’m so shy that I need my parents to conduct every form of communication, and a ten indicates that I’m so good that my inbox is stuffed with other DHH students begging me to advocate on their behalf … I’d rate myself a five. I’ll explain why.

Part of advocating for myself is, really, to state that I am deaf. This is obviously priority number one, since I have to clear that hurdle before getting additional benefits such as interpreting services. I don’t generally have a problem telling people that I’m deaf, because unlike some people with hidden disabilities who have great incentives to hide them, there is almost no reason for me to hide my deafness. Not revealing it puts me at an immediate disadvantage.

At the same time, I don’t want those words to be the first sentence that I’m telling people. This raises the key question:

When is the optimal time for me to tell people that I’m deaf?

I think the optimal time can be captured in a curve, and it would bear a shape like the hypothetical email productivity curve, with the x-axis indicating the time when I tell people I’m deaf (and make the usual requests, e.g., please talk to me clearly, turn off that blaring music, and please do not make me attend a seminar right away), and the y-axis indicating the overall joint utility that me and the other party gain.

Here’s why. At time = 0, equivalent to me telling someone I’m deaf immediately, I’ll have made things clear from the start, or at least more clear than it would have been had I not made that proclamation. That results in some utility for me.

But when two hearing people meet for the first time (e.g., during graduate student orientation), I can’t imagine that they talk about such personal things right away. They probably begin with their names, where they are from, their interests, and other small-talk fodder. Plunging right into deaf-related topics means that we would talk about something deeply personal to me, but that other person would have no knowledge about it, and may be struggling to determine if his or her immediate questions are offensive.

This is why I generally like to start conversations about “normal” things. Then when the time is right, I’ll be at the top of the joint utility curve. That is when I will tell the other person that I’m deaf. He or she may or may not gain much utility as compared to time = 0, but I know that I will have much more utility at that time, which explains the rise in the curve.

The problem with my approach is that I really have to tell the person early, because the curve quickly levels off (or can dip below zero, indicating negative (!) utility). If I keep hiding my deafness, and only reveal it after the 347th meeting with that person, then I’ll be angry at myself for not advocating for myself early, and the other person will be incensed that I didn’t tell them why I missed some information during earlier, wasted meetings. Oops.

I wish I could say that I conveyed the information regarding my deafness at optimal times to everyone important in my life. Unfortunately, I do not, and there have been several unsatisfactory events in college and in Berkeley that I probably could have avoided had I made things clearer earlier. The classic example is when I show up to meetings with at least two other people. These are a problem for me even without background noise, since it is difficult to understand two people when they are talking to each other, rather than directly to me.

Hence, the five I rate myself.

To work on my internal advocacy rating, in the future, I will no longer agree to take part in a group meeting without me making it clear that I will need some assistance. It makes things so much easier in the long run, at the cost of a little initial awkwardness that I have to learn to ignore.