In between worlds: The story of UI's only deaf student

By Alice Smelyansky

Guadalupe Pineda grew up speaking two languages — English and a secret one.

Her secret language isn’t exactly a mystery for others to solve. In fact, there are roughly 70 million people who speak it as a first language or mother tongue. (http://wfdeaf.org/human-rights/crpd/sign-language)

But at the University, Guadalupe, a junior in LAS, has far fewer people to speak her secret language with. She is the only deaf student on a campus of approximately 40,000, and not too many other students are familiar with English sign language.

Just how she speaks two first languages, Guadalupe lives on the border of two worlds.

In the hearing world, she communicates with her mother and eight-year-old sister, her friends at the University who don’t sign and the majority of people who she encounters on a day-to-day basis.

In the deaf world, she speaks in her secret language with friends, works at a deaf church in Chicago and competes in Miss & Mister Deaf International.

She knew coming to a hearing school would be difficult, but she didn’t expect it to be this difficult.

“I thought I was going to graduate here and not worry about the challenges,” she said. “But now, I’m worried about the challenges and if I’m willing to take the risk, too.”

The small battery-operated molds in her ears are her survival kit. Without her hearing aids, Guadalupe couldn’t live in both worlds.

Adapting in a hearing world

When she was 18 months old, Guadalupe received her first pair of hearing aids.

“I remember I took her for the first time to Mexico and before we left, I started noticing she would take (the hearing aids) off and throw them on the floor because she was not used to hearing anything loud,” Hortencia Guerrero, Guadalupe’s mother, said. “So I’m like ‘Wow, these hearing aids are going to have to stay here, because the last thing I need is her to lose them there.’”

Guadalupe gradually adjusted to the hearing aids, though she admits she used to take them off as a child so she wouldn’t hear her mother’s voice yelling at her when they argued.

At around first grade, Guadalupe learned sign language in school.

Her hometowns changed throughout the Chicagoland area to ensure she could go to a school with a program for deaf students. For high school, Guadalupe took a 45-minute bus ride to Hinsdale South High School, the closest, and best, school that offered the services she needed.

It was only when Guadalupe was in middle school did she and her mother discover Illinois School for the Deaf, the only school in Illinois to provide residential programming for students who are hard of hearing or deaf. 

Though she later attended summer camp at the school in Jacksonville, Illinois, her mother didn’t want her at a school where she would only see her on the weekends.

“How can parents just come and leave their 5-year-old there?” Guerrero questioned. “And not see her for the whole week or maybe two weeks?”

But when Guadalupe attended high school, she was one of 85 deaf students at Hinsdale South. It was the perfect scenario for her — a mainstream education with a deaf program. And she misses it.

“I am better in a (study) group,” she said. “But if it’s hearing, I get lost. What am I going to learn from that? With deaf people I can sign. I don’t get lost.”

A language barrier

There’s one subject that Guadalupe doesn’t have to worry about struggling in.

In Susan Minnye Dramin Weiss’ American Sign Language classes, Guadalupe can practice what she once considered her secret language.

“Everybody is so enthusiastic about communicating with her and they’re talking, and so I have to get everybody to stop when I’m starting to teach, but everybody wants to sit with her,” Dramin Weiss said. 

Guadalupe wishes more people could sign with her at the University.

Amber Davis, a graduate student clinician and a teacher’s assistant for Language and Culture of Deaf Communities, or SHS 222, believes Guadalupe’s involvement in the deaf and hearing world is one that many students with hearing loss face.

“I don’t want to put any words in her mouth or speak for her and her situation, but just generally for kids with hearing loss, especially at this transitional identity age, it really is a point where they recognize there’s a line,” she said.

Though she can understand hearing people in a one-on-one setting, it’s especially difficult for Guadalupe to communicate in a group.

The most frustrating instance for her is when she observes a group of people laughing, and she’s not sure why.

“I would ask my friend why they’re laughing and they’ll tell me or sometimes they’ll tell me ‘I’ll tell you later,’ which I don’t like because sometimes I would ask them later and they’ll be like ‘Oh I forgot.’ It’s not fun,” she said.

Despite her frustrations, Guadalupe never asks those around her to repeat themselves.

“I guess I’m afraid to ask. I don’t want them to think I’m annoying. And I don’t want to waste their time, too.”

A counterintuitive culture

Separate from the hearing world, there’s another culture that’s thriving specifically because all of the individuals who belong to it have a hearing loss.

“You have a whole hearing society that’s labeling it as a disability, that’s referring to it as a hearing impairment, a hearing loss, kind of these more negative terms, but then you go to the deaf culture, and they have no loss, they have no impairment,” said Kristen Anderson, a master’s student in speech language pathology and a T.A. for SHS 222.

“It would just be like if people spoke Spanish. I would never go to Mexico and say you’re disabled because I don’t speak the same language.”

In SHS 222, students learn that those with a hearing loss can identify with a lowercase “d” or a capital “D.” A lowercase “d” simply refers to an individual who is deaf, but an uppercase “D” identifies that person as a member of the deaf community.

For a capital “D” deaf person, being deaf is a source of pride. The capital “D” also indicates that the person will engage in community and social events.

However, in order to receive an interpreter and a note taker in the classroom, a person must accept deafness as a disability. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, there are 13 disabilities that qualify a student for accommodations.

“It’s counterintuitive with the culture,” Anderson said.

And for Dramin Weiss, deafness is not a disability.

“A long time ago, people didn’t know anything about deaf culture and they would look down on me,” she said. “I’ve had to insist, look at me, look at me straight in the eye and insist on that respect. And to teach them that we are all the same in every single way except our ears.”

Though Dramin Weiss doesn’t see it as often anymore, lack of awareness often results in people asking her how she drives, restaurant waiters bringing her menus in braille and even individuals throwing things at her to get her attention.

“They all of a sudden think, ‘How am I going to communicate.’ I don’t know, maybe they think I’m an idiot because I’m deaf …they feel dumb because they don’t know sign language.”

Finding the balance

Guadalupe’s sister, Melanie, is learning sign language at St. Francis Borgia Catholic Church, a deaf church in Chicago. It’s the same church were Guadalupe has worked since she was 15 years old, serving coffee and doughnuts to church dwellers.

“Everyone signs when they are there, sometimes they’ll have an interpreter for voicing,” Guadalupe said. “Hearing people go, too — those that know sign language. Some students come to observe, sometimes they try to sign with deaf people.”

In the summer of 2014, Guadalupe participated in Miss & Mister Deaf International, a competition that honors both deaf women and men. She traveled to Reading, England, performed a dance to “Party in the U.S.A” by Miley Cyrus and become friends with deaf individuals from all around the world.

Though Guadalupe engages in the deaf culture community, she still feels like she doesn’t have the same pride that a capital “D” person would have.

“I think she was already in high school, but she came home crying and saying she didn’t want to go to school, and I was like ‘No no no, you don’t just let anybody push you down like that,’” Guerrero said. 

Jessica Bustamante, Guadalupe’s friend and a senior in LAS, didn’t even realize she was hard of hearing at first.

“I think some people might not want to make the effort to get to know her, because they might see it like they won’t be able to communicate with her, but that shouldn’t stop them,” Bustamante said. “Because that’s never really been an issue with me or other people I see her around.”

One day, Guadalupe hopes to work in the hearing world. She could see herself working for an adoption agency in a ministry.

“I want her to go all the way. I want her to get her career,” Guerrero said.

But Guadalupe is still figuring her future out.

“I like this school. It has good education, good reputation. And I have some friends here too. That’s the only part I don’t regret about being here,” she said. “I thought maybe because it’s my first year I’m not used to it. So, I’m giving myself more time to see what I can do.”

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