‘I don’t belong here.’ I had a hard time accepting myself. People were always trying to ‘fix’ me.’: Woman finds acceptance in Deaf community, ‘We have so much to offer’

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“One of my favorite movies is ‘The Goonies.’ I love the idea of how a group of young kids found an old pirate map, and they embarked on a journey to find that gold. The group of kids did not give up, and went as far as possible. Their journey turned out to be one of the most extraordinary adventures of their lives. That movie, to me, has the perfect concept of how I see the Deaf community. Deaf people are treasure chests of gold. The Deaf community is a hidden gem that gets buried, hidden, trampled upon, and often overlooked by most people in this world. However, only those who are willing to go that far will see the value of Deaf people and why we are equally important to any other person on the planet.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

I was born Deaf, and I come from the third generation of a Deaf family. My family primarily uses American Sign Language to communicate. I went to seven different schools, and I moved over 30 times in my life. I have lived in seven different states. I would jokingly tell my friends I feel like I have always lived my life with boxes. I have lived in all types of housings you can imagine. I have lived in studios, apartments, townhouses, a mansion, farmhouses, rowhouses, and even on a fishing boat at one point. I learned it is not about where you live, but who you are with. Who you are with does impact who you become. I do need to point out that having a Deaf family is not common. The majority of Deaf children are born to hearing parents. Most of the time, those Deaf children do not have full communication access at home or at school.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

As I mentioned, I went to seven different schools. I went to four mainstream schools and three Deaf schools. I struggled to go to mainstream schools because I was surrounded by mostly hearing people, and I was trying to find who I was. I would have one or two classes with other Deaf people, and then the rest of my classes would be with hearing people. (I use the term ‘hearing’ to define a person who can hear and I capitalize ‘D’ for the term ‘Deaf’ to show we have a culture, language, and community). I would be the only Deaf person in that hearing classroom. In my Deaf classes at my mainstream schools, I would only have maybe two or three other Deaf students. At the mainstream schools I went to, hearing kids would make fun of my sign language.

I often felt left out during lunchtimes. Everybody would be talking to each other, but I would not be able to keep up. I had to talk to my teachers through my interpreters. I never got invited to go over to a friend’s house. I have been bullied and ridiculed by other hearing people. I have been slapped one too many times by my speech therapist because I pronounced some words wrong. I did not feel I belonged. I did not see any other people who also shared the same struggles as I did, except for those few Deaf students who were with me. My parents decided to move me to a Deaf school.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

When I walked into my class at the first Deaf school I was enrolled in, I beamed up with joy because I saw other students who were Deaf like me. My teachers were Deaf too. Everyone was using sign language. Finally. Full communication access. I got invited to other birthday parties. I was able to go over to friends’ houses, and the best part was my friends were Deaf too! When I was surrounded by other Deaf people, I felt I belonged. I felt I found my community and became more solidified in who I was as a Deaf person. I found my identity. To be frank, my Deaf peers helped me build confidence in myself as a Deaf person. That is why I am saying it is who you are surrounded by that affects how you accept yourself.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

For a long time, I had a hard time accepting myself as a Deaf person until I found a community I felt belonged in. Once I built that confidence, I never looked back, and never wished I was a hearing person. Being a Deaf person is like finding a treasure chest. I am grateful for American Sign Language because it gives me full access to expressing myself. A wise person, George Veditz, once said, ‘Sign language is a gift from God.’ Indeed it is. It does not matter whether a Deaf person has an ‘assistance’ (i.e., a hearing aid) to help hear some noises, or whether a Deaf person learns how to speak, or any of that sort. At the end of the day, a Deaf person will still be Deaf. What really matters is the language access to communication, and sign language provides that full access.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

I went to three Deaf schools. The Deaf school I had the most personal growth with was at Washington School for the Deaf. I have a heart for Deaf schools because everybody feels like family. I had Deaf dorm counselors, Deaf teachers, and Deaf coaches. I was able to communicate 24/7 with sign language. I played sports such as volleyball, basketball, cheerleading, track, and soccer. I was able to play two sports at a time. I went to Deaf tournaments. This was an opportunity for me to meet other Deaf people that went to different Deaf schools, and we would play against each other for sports. Growing up, as I continued to meet more Deaf people like me, I continued to feel more grounded in who I was as a Deaf person.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

After graduating from high school, I went off to Gallaudet University. I achieved my Bachelor’s degrees in English, Education, and Communication Studies. I went to American University to get my master’s in International Communication specializing in Cross-Culture and Education. When I graduated with my Masters, I decided to join a Youth With A Mission (YWAM) missionary organization. It was the first time YWAM had a program specifically for Deaf people only. It was called ‘YWAM ASL.’ So, I joined that program and stayed with them for 3 years. I grew up in a Christian family, but I wanted to go on my own journey to find my own experience with my beliefs. YWAM ASL provided the opportunity for me to build my personal faith journey with Jesus.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

After being with YWAM for 3 years, I had a job offer in Council Bluffs, Iowa as a Bible translator for a non-profit organization called Deaf Missions. I joined a team of talented people that translated books from the Bible into sign language. I worked with Deaf Missions for 3 years before my contract ended. I shifted my course to going back to school. I am currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Interpersonal, Health, and Family Communication field.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

I have traveled to nearly 30 different countries and met so many different Deaf people from across the world. I am a licensed scuba diver, and I have ridden across the USA on a bicycle. I have hiked the Great Wall in China and left a note in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

I kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland and drank wine by the Eiffel tower in Paris. I am saying all this because it all goes back to the confidence I have found in myself as a Deaf person. When my family supported me, when I saw other Deaf role models that were successful, when I was able to meet other Deaf people like me, and when I had full access to communication with sign language — those things built me up as a confident person. If I did not have these things, then I think I would be a different person.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

I remember I had an internship in Thailand, and I worked with a group of Deaf Thai kids for several months. The Deaf school was in a remote area. By remote, I mean it was 6 hours away from the biggest city, and to get there, you had to take a bus, hitch a ride on a taxi, take another bus, get on a scooter, and walk to get there. I interned with two other Deaf people, so there were the three of us who worked at that Deaf school. The Deaf Thai kids never saw another Deaf person besides the other Deaf kids they were with. When the three of us arrived, the kids were confused because they thought they were the only Deaf group in the world. Hearing people said they were ‘cursed.’ When we went to public places like the markets or visiting other schools nearby, none of the kids would sign. They were embarrassed.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

The two other Deaf interns and I decided to develop some kind of workshop to encourage confidence in the kids’ Deaf identity. We brought in many skits, stories, and even photos of various Deaf role models. We explained that many other Deaf people had the same frustrations as them. Within a few weeks, the Deaf children began to create new stories of their own in Thai sign language. When we went to public places, they excitedly chatted with each other in Thai sign language. They even created a song about them being Deaf and showed us. You could say a lot of happy tears were flowing when we saw that song from the cute little Thai kids. When we had to leave, because our internship time frame came to an end, it was one of the most heartbreaking moments I had in my life. I was leaving a group of Deaf kids who finally built confidence in themselves as being Deaf. It was a ‘Goonies’ moment— they found the gold.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

The time I had in Thailand changed my life. It was an awakening moment for me of how important it is for Deaf people to have communication access. Deaf people live in a world where hearing people are trying to ‘fix’ us. They do not just see us as equals, but as people who are lacking something. Doctors try to fix us. Teachers try to fix us. Hearing people make decisions for Deaf people. We live under a system that was created for people who can hear. When we try to fight for accessibility, they assume we are just a group of people who like to complain, when that is not the case. On top of what happens every day, we also have a hard time getting access to resources. With our increase in technology, there is also an increase in the need for access to communication.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

One of my most favorite childhood memories was when I had the opportunity to live on a fishing boat. This was before my baby brother came into the picture. My father owned a commercial fishing boat. My father did deep-sea fishing for a living, mainly fishing for salmon on the Pacific Ocean. I was about 4 years old, and we did not have a home during that time. We did have a room with my grandparents in San Jose, California, but no home of our own. So, my parents mostly lived on the boat. I would go to school for half of the time and be homeschooled on the boat for the other half. My father was a great fisherman. Honestly, I had such a marvelous experience. I cannot explain the smell of fresh ocean air.

When I was on the ocean, far away from the land, I learned how to be creative with my time. I would fill in my coloring books, sign a lot of songs, and create an imaginary world when I would be a warrior fighting off dragons and sea monsters. I would sit around and watch my father net fish with my mother’s help. We ate fish nearly every day. Yes. Every. Day. We would go out on the deck, watch the sunrise and sunset. Being away from the city and far on the ocean water, problems just did not matter anymore. You could not run anywhere. You could not hide. You are stuck with the people you have on the boat with you. You learn how to accommodate your tasks on the boat. You learn how to reflect. You learn how to listen. Most of all, you learn how to be patient.

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

That is how I wish hearing people would manage their time with Deaf people. Reflect on what we share. Be willing to make accommodations. Listen to us. If you do not see the value in us, then you will continue to see us as people that need to be fixed. Deaf people have so much to offer to this world. Include us. See us. Love us. Once you are willing to explore beyond the ‘pirate map’ of the system, you will find the gold, and that is our Deaf community. It would be a  ‘Goonies’ moment, you could say.”

Courtesy of Renca Dunn

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Renca Dunn, Ph.D. scholar and social media personality from Nebraska. You can follow her journey on Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube  for our best videos.

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