Transcript of 3rd Session between Charles Balis, M.D. and Ms. Kelly Wiseling, Wednesday, August 12, 1998 at 2:00 pm.

Dr. Balis: Hello, Ms. Wiseling. How are you today?
Ms. Wiseling: I'm fine, Doctor Balis. You may call me Kelly.
Dr. Balis: Thank you. And you may call me Doctor Balis.
Ms. Wiseling: Fair enough.
Dr. Balis: How are things at work?
Ms. Wiseling: I'm very busy, I like that. Scott Collavito is leaving me alone now. He sends me work-related e-mail, but he avoids actually talking to me. And that's fine by me.
Dr. Balis: I see.
Ms. Wiseling: I'm teaching some of the people in my department how to curse in sign language. They all liked the "asshole" sign and asked to learn more like that. Everyone knows the middle finger, but there are lots of other gestures for bad words you won't find in most sign language dictionaries.
Dr. Balis: Hmm.
Ms. Wiseling: Now my office mates will be able to piss off deaf people and curse at them in their own language.
Dr. Balis: How kind of you to teach them.
Ms. Wiseling: After that incident with Scott Collavito, my boss asked me if I wanted to send out a memo--a how to guide for working with deaf people. I said, "No thank you," right away. But now I'm having second thoughts.
Dr. Balis: Why is that?
Ms. Wiseling: At first, I didn't want to draw attention to myself, and I didn't think it was necessary. When I first came to SII, my boss introduced me to the department. He explained that I was deaf, but I could read lips. Almost everyone was cool about it.
Dr. Balis: Almost everyone?
Ms. Wiseling: There are always jerks who have to make fun of anyone who's different. There's this one guy who stomps his foot on the floor to get my attention. He made me jump a few times, and everybody turned to look. He thought that was funny. Sensitivity training doesn't do any good for dick-heads like that. He doesn't care how deaf people prefer to be approached.
Dr. Balis: How do you prefer to be approached?
Ms. Wiseling: Either by a light tap on the shoulder or by a knock on the desk. You don't have to bang on the floor with your feet. You only do that during an argument, or if you're trying to signal someone across the room. That's my preference anyway.
Dr. Balis: You're right, there are some people who won't care about your feelings. But I'm sure there are people at work who would appreciate this information.
Ms. Wiseling: That's what I now realized, but it's too late.
Dr. Balis: Not necessarily. You can approach your boss and tell him what you just told me. I'm sure he would be happy to help you. Are there other issues involving communication that you would like to address?
Ms. Wiseling: Yes. I can tell that some people at the office are a little uncomfortable around me. They don't know how to approach me or talk to me. They don't realize that most deaf people trained in lip-reading want you to speak to them like you would to a hearing person. All you have to do is look at me while you're talking and enunciate clearly. With years of lip-reading experience and the hearing aid, I can understand most people. I have difficulties with foreign accents. When my relatives from England came for a visit, I had to ask them to repeat themselves.
Dr. Balis: You can talk to your boss about all the communications issues you have problems with in the office. He would...
Ms. Wiseling: I don't want to make a fuss. On the one hand, I want to be like everyone else. On the other, I want people to accommodate my needs. That's a contradiction, right? I can't have it both ways.
Dr. Balis: It seems that you are only asking for a very small and reasonable accommodation, which you are afforded by law, by the way.
Ms. Wiseling: I don't want to bring up the Americans with Disabilities Act unless I have to. I came to SII because I wanted to assimilate into a normal working environment. All my life, my mom told me to be like a normal, hearing person. I hated her for saying that, but now look at what I'm doing.
Dr. Balis: I remember you said your previous job was at a company that employed a lot of deaf people.
Ms. Wiseling: Yes, I worked for DeafTech, but it wasn't a real job. It was a good experience, but there was no money and no future there. After Gallaudet and DeafTech, I had enough of the deaf community.
Dr. Balis: What do you mean?
Ms. Wiseling: I didn't know a lot about the deaf community before I went to Gallaudet. Deaf people have a culture all of their own. For example, I learned ASL on my own from books, but I didn't know slang expressions and curse words like the other kids. Gallaudet was and is the center for deaf activism. I arrived there a few years after the "Deaf President Now" protest.
Dr. Balis: I saw a news report on that quite a few years ago. Gallaudet students successfully lobbied to have a deaf person as president of the University, and they also wanted the majority of school trustees to be deaf.
Ms. Wiseling: Very good, Doctor. Most hearing people have never heard of Gallaudet.
Dr. Balis: I'm interested in the development of the deaf culture in America. A few years back, I read a very good book on the subject: "Seeing Voices" by Oliver Sacks. He presented a very interesting history of the treatment of deaf people in America and Europe. He also talked about Gallaudet in some detail.
Ms. Wiseling: Hmm. I might have to look this book up. Well, the Gallaudet campus was a culture shock for me. I wasn't used to that kind of environment. There were a lot of radicals. People argued all the time. It was interesting being around other deaf people. I think in some ways, it was a good experience because I learned deaf culture and improved my ASL. But I got sick of listening to all that rhetoric.
Dr. Balis: Hmm.
Ms. Wiseling: In deaf culture, being deaf is not considered a handicap, it's just the way you are. Some deaf people compare deafness to having blue eyes or freckles--it's a natural part of you and one that you should accept. You've heard the story about the deaf couple expecting a baby? They wanted to determine whether the child was deaf while it was still in utero. When the doctor told them the baby had normal hearing, the couple wanted an abortion--they wanted a deaf child. Many people, including deaf people, find that story shocking. I do too. I don't agree with that couple, but I understand their feelings. For some, being deaf is an identity, and those individuals have a strong sense of pride about it. Deaf people want to marry other deaf people, just as some people want to marry within their own racial group or in their own faith. And many deaf people want deaf children who will share their culture and language.
Dr. Balis: Hmm.
Ms. Wiseling: I understand why some deaf persons resent the hearing world--they feel it has rejected them. To a lot of deaf people, "hearing" and "stupid" are almost synonymous. They forget that there are stupid, ignorant, deaf people, too--like my roommates. On campus, I heard a lot of jokes about stupid hearing people. The deaf are very proud of their culture. They like to think it's better than the hearing culture.
Dr. Balis: What are your feelings about this?
Ms. Wiseling: I can understand, but I don't always agree. There are parts of both the hearing world and the deaf world that I love, and there are some things I can't stand about both. Because I was a late bloomer when it came to learning ASL, I don't think I was really accepted by the deaf community.
Dr. Balis: Why do you think that?
Ms. Wiseling: Do you know how some people are popular and well-liked because they are good at telling jokes and stories? In the deaf world, being able to sign well is very important. Some people are gifted that way, they have a talent for telling stories and communicating through sign. Remember Heather Whitestone, the first deaf Miss America? The deaf community kept attacking her because she didn't sign. They also criticized Marlee Matlin because she didn't sign her acceptance speech at the Oscars, she spoke instead.
Dr. Balis: How do you feel about that?
Ms. Wiseling: I've also heard deaf activists either praise or criticize Louise Fletcher for signing at the Academy Awards. Some of them say what she did was good for deaf people, others say it was demeaning because she is a hearing person. You can't win. I used to argue that people like Heather Whitestone and Marlee Matlin are ambassadors to the hearing world, and it helps that they can speak well because not many hearing people sign.
Dr. Balis: Do you prefer speaking to signing?
Ms. Wiseling: I like to use both, but most of the time, I speak. I'll sign if the other person understands or wants to learn. Heather Whitestone is interesting because in some ways her upbringing was like mine.
Dr. Balis: How so?
Ms. Wiseling: Heather was not born deaf, but became deaf due to illness at a young age, like me. She has some residual hearing and uses a hearing aid. Heather's mother didn't like ASL and pushed her to speak. Her mother also enrolled her in beauty pageants to pay for college. Heather never says anything bad about her mother--Miss America types aren't supposed to--but I wonder if she secretly resents her mom.
Dr. Balis: Hmm.
Ms. Wiseling: When I first read about her, it made me angry that her mother did this to her. I thought it was terrible. And the fact that Heather Whitestone is so well-known and is supposed to be a role-model for the deaf community...well, that sends the wrong message. It's like saying that what her mother did was right--it was right to deny her child the ability to speak to other deaf people and to force her child to adapt to a hearing world. I wonder if her mother knew how frustrating it is to try and speak a language you can't hear.
Dr. Balis: Hmm.
Ms. Wiseling: I think Heather Whitestone's mother should learn firsthand what she put her daughter through. A band of terrorists should kidnap her, rupture both her eardrums, and send her to Iran where she would have to learn Farsi without the benefit of hearing it.
Dr. Balis: You feel strongly about this.
Ms. Wiseling: What really got me is when I saw Heather dance. A lot of deaf people love to dance. Hearing people are often surprised that deaf people are good at it. But when I saw Heather Whitestone do her ballet routine on TV, I thought there's no joy in her movements--she looked like a little doll in a jewelry box. That seemed the cruelest thing of all--forcing a deaf child to take ballet. Ballet music doesn't have a strong beat like popular dance music. I read that Heather had to count off the beats in her head to keep time. Where's the fun in that? It sounds like a boring exercise. Heather's mother probably did it to make her look good.
Dr. Balis: Go on.
Ms. Wiseling: The funny thing is that sometimes I think deaf people like me--the ones who were forced to speak and adapt to hearing culture--are really better off. If I had learned ASL and stayed in the deaf community, I wouldn't be as adept in the hearing world. You have to give up one to have the other. But sometimes, I think you lose both ways.
Dr. Balis: Hmm.
Ms. Wiseling: I didn't mean to spend so much time talking about being deaf. It must be boring for you.
Dr. Balis: No, as I said, I actually find it quite interesting and informative. And here you're free to talk about whatever subject concerns you.
Ms. Wiseling: It's funny, when I came to San Francisco, I thought it would be a new beginning. I decided that once I arrived, being deaf would no longer be an issue for me. I was an individual, an independent person, who just happened to be deaf. Maybe I was just kidding myself.
Dr. Balis: Many people feel conflicted about their identities, especially when they belong to more than one minority group. For instance, a gay Jewish man may consider himself a gay man first and a Jew second. It's a matter of personal choice.
Ms. Wiseling: I understand what you're saying. But for me, it seems like being deaf will always come first. I know that will always be a part of me, but I don't want it to be that way. Am I making any sense?
Dr. Balis: Yes, you are. I think this is an important issue to explore, but we're almost out of time.
Ms. Wiseling: Already?
Dr. Balis: I'm afraid so.
Ms. Wiseling: Next week, I want to discuss some non-deaf issues, too. Maybe I better write that down.
Dr. Balis: We can do that, if you'd like. Kelly, I would like you to consider talking to your boss about that proposal you mentioned at the beginning of the session.
Ms. Wiseling: Okay, I'll think about it.
Dr. Balis: All right, Kelly. Have a good week.
Ms. Wiseling: You too, Doctor Balis.
Dr. Balis: Goodbye, Kelly.
Ms. Wiseling: Bye.
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