If I had been born in a different country, it’s very likely that I would have been a beggar. I was reminded of this on the metro in Mexico City, when a deaf person would occasionally put a piece of paper into my hand without a word. “Soy sordo/a…” (I am deaf…) it would begin. I wondered if they ever saw my hearing aid, and realized that we had more in common than they thought. Probably not. I was almost always the only gringa squeezed on the metro with the millions and millions of Mexicans living in the capital. All they could see were my blue eyes and pale skin, which stood out in a sea of brown.
That could be me, I thought. It was a startling revelation. What if my parents had been extremely poor, and never bought me a hearing aid? What if I hadn’t grown up in the United States? It certainly isn’t perfect here, but I was still able to make it through school all the way to college, thanks to disability laws and support for people with disabilities. And not only that, but I excelled too. Instead of seeing with a critical eye as to what was lacking, this was the first time I was humbled with appreciation for what I did have, and continue to have, in the U.S. And I was afforded this privilege simply because I was born on the other side of the line.
I am completely deaf in one ear, and with use of an aid in the other, my hearing is improved to a moderate loss on that side. My understanding of speech hovers around 62 percent, give or take, based on my hearing exam every year (when I was little I was naive enough to think that if I concentrated hard enough I could improve my listening score – later I realized that was one “grade” I would never be able to improve).
I grew up mainstreamed in a hearing world. Aside from my sister, who also has a hearing impairment, I had brief interactions with other “deaf” playmates, but was never aware of Deaf culture until my college years. ASL was never my primary language, although my mom used a combination of ASL and signed English when my sister and I were in the critical language development years, because of our delayed diagnoses (I was 8 months old, my older sister was almost 2 years). In a lot of ways, I struggled with this isolation in a hearing world. I struggled to find my way, not quite here or there, always unsure of myself and my footing, but fiercely independent. Probably the biggest challenge has been convincing people that “YES. I CAN.” From language teachers to potential employers, I realized I had to believe it myself first before I could convince others, and that has been a struggle for me.
I’ve had to forge my way alone, and learn to solve seemingly mundane situations suddenly made more complex by my disability, such as how to communicate with a woman wearing a full-facial hijab when I can’t read her lips, and also can’t ask her to remove it. Other hearing people don’t have to solve those kinds of problems. My brain is in constant problem-solving mode, and I’ve come to recognize this as an asset that I’ve gained through having a disability. An asset that will also be one of my strengths as a lawyer, when I need to find legal solutions to people’s problems.
And sometimes, there are no solutions. The law is often frustratingly convoluted and confining. No other experience illustrated this as painstakingly to me as my husband’s immigration process. After two years of living in Mexico while he was completing his Master’s degree, I was finally ready to come home and begin my own journey back to school. When I took our two young children and we said our goodbyes in the Benito Juarez International airport, I had no idea it would take over a year for his paperwork to go through and our family to be reunited. Everything came so terribly close to falling apart that year.
But, here I am. Applying to law school some four years after the notion first came into my head that I wanted to be a lawyer. Because despite the barriers I may come up against practicing law, I remember this:
I could have ended up a beggar, by circumstance. But I choose to be a lawyer, because I can.