Being seen deaf, or, pools as borders

by Krista Kennedy

The pool I swim at is a university pool, filled most moments of the day for teaching and training. As I thread my way through the pale tile warren that leads from the women’s locker room to the pool itself, my shoulders relax when the scent of chlorine hits my nose. I sometimes pause just to breathe it in, anticipating the weightlessness and solitude that waits in the water. I have loved many pools over the years, and together they form a shifting geography of wellness and identity, given the invisible nature of my disabilities. Here, my internal geography has also shifted as I encounter my deaf self and as others encounter me as deaf. 

The pool is never home, though; it cannot be for my body. My body, which has been severely and profoundly deaf since the age of two. My body that feels the creep of degenerative arthritis and the flares brought on by winter weather. Me, who received a mainstream education, has always worked in “hearing jobs, and was taught to always, always pass as hearing. Me, who these days passes a little less and thinks about the politics of passing a little more. Pools, for me, have been a border, a borderline, and a borderland.   

*** 

The pool is a borderline, in the second meaning of the word: a thin, precarious space verging on the indecent or inappropriate. In my childhood training, which began immediately after the deafness that resulted from spinal meningitis was properly diagnosed, public deafness was verboten. Years of speech therapy and cultural conditioning taught me this. I was never taught that disability is bad, exactly, but rather steered toward thinking that when effectively hidden, disability is inconsequential. Passing might alleviate the risks of deafness, the statistical unemployment, the social exclusion. Deafness was a private matter, its inappropriateness and indecency never meant to be seen in public. If nobody can know you’re deaf because a successful deaf person does not let anyone know that she’s deaf, then nobody can see you being deaf. 

If nobody can see you deaf, nobody can see you when you’re not wearing your hearing aid. I still wear mine from the moment you get out of my bed in the morning until the moment I get back into it. Nobody is permitted to see me being unable to hear them, unable to know according to “normal” ways of knowing. Part of it is that I can’t stand not to know, and so I want to converse with people, hear what’s going on around me, watch TV with the sound on, constantly listen to music.  But part of it is that nobody else is allowed to see me being unable to do these things and more importantly, to see me as unable to do these things. 

I have always loved being in water, but this self-imposed rule makes it hard to swim in any public way, especially in pools. Hearing aids do not like being wet, at all, ever. Growing up surrounded by the humid air of a southern river valley and the surrounding wetlands meant that everything sounded a little fuzzier in the summers. Little droplets of water condense in the plastic tube that runs from mold to aid. Tiny amounts of water try to sneak their way into the aid itself, whether from humidity, from the thunderstorms that roar through in the afternoons, or from my own sweat as it runs in rivulets down my temples. Various drying apparatuses are essential and any time the aid is out of the ear, it’s dehumidifying, nestled next to a desiccant that itself has to be constantly dehydrated.  

If I want to purposefully be in water, then the aid has to come out and I have to be, well, seen deaf. As a child, the way that felt safest to do this is to take a bath. In the long summers and then any time I could, I spent hours and hours in the bathtub, reading and not reading, fingers and toes wrinkling. When the water got too cold, I drained and refilled the tub. A fourhour bath was a completely reasonable way for an eightyearold to spend a hundred degree afternoon, in my mind, submerged and flicking through the pile of books I kept in the bathroom. 

But if someone would drive me a few miles over the hills, we could go to my grandparents’ backyard pool that reeked from the chlorine overdose that my grandpa fastidiously maintained. It was lined in blue, shimmering in the heat, dug deep and short to fit the small back yard with the chain link fence that backed up to The Doctor’s half-block property. The diving board on the far side stretched a good bit of the pool’s total length. At the other end was my grandma’s small, whitewashed polycarbonate greenhouse, with its smells of green and dirt and petrichor and fertilizer, its prickly cactus. There, we changed into our swimsuits, emerging from its deep aroma to jump into the chlorine essence of the water. Some Sundaysmy friend Michelle would climb over the fence from the corner lot where her own grandma lived. We stripped down to our Wonder Woman Underoos and flung ourselves into the pool. She saw me deaf and didn’t care because we were too busy screeching and dunking and splashing. Then later, my cousins swam too and I played Marco Polo with everyone, relying on hearing the cadence of syllables rather than the words themselves. And then we didn’t go at all.  

*** 

As I got older, the pool became a border, a boundary. Less precarious, a verb rather than a thing. Border: to bound, confine, limit. I did learn to swim, eventually, one blazing day in another backyard pool. Some teenage summers were spent with passes to Wild River Country, which opened just down our hill. I avoided any of the rides that might require me to hear instructions and instead spent my time bobbing in the wave pool, staying in for so many hours that I still felt the movement of the false tide when I lay in bed at night. 

The last time I went to my grandparents’ pool, I went alone at dusk one evening in my late teens. They were out of town, their house and the yard deserted. The neighborhood was still. Michelle had long since moved to Florida with her mom; The Doctor’s yard over the other fence lay still. I lowered myself into a pool full of fallen leaves and not that much chlorine, swimming in water that was a little too mucky with both bacteria and memories. Soon after, they rolled a heavy cover over the edges, closing it for good. 

And that was that. I didn’t go to another pool for more than a decade. All of the options were public, and in a town where your family has lived for three generations, you never know who you’ll run into. Boundaries are for keeping people in as well as for keeping people out. I stayed out and let the waters keep the others, the people who didn’t need to think twice about hearing the life guards, hearing someone they might know. 

*** 

I stayed away from pools and their tiled boundaries until it became a problem and then even after thatIn my late 20s, I slipped on ice and broke most of the bones in my ankle. My surgeon repaired it with plates and 13 screws, and then warned me that I’d probably develop arthritis. I did, earlier and more severely than most. A pool was where I needed to be, regularly, to exercise without bearing weight. The most convenient, best-maintained pools were the ones at the university where I was a grad student. I’ve spent my life around universities, which are always places where it has been especially important for me to render my deafness as invisible as possible because of cultural bias. Here, as elsewhere, deafness is frequently confused with dumbness. Requests for someone to repeat themselves can result in confusion: does the person making that request not understand or are they incapable of understanding? Ableism constantly works to shape others’ perceptions of my intelligence and leadership. As a graduate student, managing these expectations weighed heavily. I never, ever let anyone see me deaf. 

During the single summer I swam in the agricultural campus pool, there was hardly anyone I knew. Except, that is, for my best friend Greg, who swam every day and competed with the local Masters team. Despite our closeness, I went at hours I knew he wouldn’t be there, having no intention of letting him see me deaf. But one afternoon there he was, suddenly surfacing in the lane next to mine, swimming his elegant, efficient freestyle stroke. I slowed, swimming as low in the water as I could in the hopes that he wouldn’t recognize me. He did, immediately, and waited at the end of the lane for me, bursting to tell about his recent trip to a workshop and the drama that had ensued there. When I finally made it to the wall, he looked into my eyes and started to talk. 

I shook my head. “I can’t hear you without my hearing aid.” 

“Yes, but…” and he tried again. 

I shook my head again. And he tried again. He was not going to let this go, let me go. 

Feeling frantic, I reached up and grabbed my hearing aid from the edge of the pool, wedging it squishily into my ear. We treaded water in the shallow end for an hour, floating in the afternoon light that flowed through the windows, talking about the ways our lives were changing in ways both big and little. Greg seeing me at a moment when I needed my hearing aid changed nothing. Still, I didn’t go back to the pool for any number of reasons despite all my various doctors’ telling me how important it would be. I found the border to be uncrossable still. 

*** 

These days, my campus pool is my borderland, the sort of space Gloria Anzaldúa describes as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. … The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.” I was invited into the very situation that I most avoided all of those years: an aqua fitness class with verbal instructions that my department chair and a several of our office staff, all friends of mine, attended. They asked me to go, I said no, I said yes, I changed my mind and said definitely not. Nevertheless, they all appeared at my office door, gathered me up, and walked me across campus with them at the appointed time.  

I had emailed the instructor, a stern brown man with a reputation among his students for being forbidding, to ask about being a deaf student in the class. He replied, “Wear your hearing aid under a cap.” I wrote back, explaining that this was impossible for me to do with such an expensive and sensitive piece of technology, and didn’t receive a reply. But there I was, in the pool, surrounded by people invested in me being there.  

I floundered, which is not unusual for new students. He saw me flounder and shouted instructions, as he does for all his students. It made no difference. And then over the course of a few classes, he began to accompany every single instruction with a visual cue. I also learned watch the other students for clues, especially about staying on beatThese days, I’m not bad at it. My teacher is still not a writer of emails and I’m still not talkative at the pool. Still, we have a fondness for each other, a relationship based on paying close attention to each other across the water for many months, on occasional shoulder taps and grins, and, every so often after I’ve dried my ear and put my hearing aid, a few words of conversation.  

The pool is a refuge, a calm, quiet space, and yet I remain in transition each time I cross the tiles into this space and its water, despite my ease in class, despite hours spent jogging in a floating belt, despite still swimming my slow, messy crawl.  Borderlands are often uncomfortable spaces. As I move up and down the lane, I watch the snow outside the windows and contemplate this discomfort between my hearing self and my deaf self. My chair and the staff have all seen me without my hearing aid, unable to converse in the usual ways. I occasionally run into students, not all of whom recognize me without my professor clothes. Sometimes, it has been beneficial. Mostly, it doesn’t matter. A few times, though, it has certainly mattered. I have experienced both more acceptance and more ableism at work since those I inhabit this space with have encountered an obviously disabled version of myself on a regular basis. The divide isn’t any narrower, but as Anzaldúa promises, from this friction emerges the third country that is the borderland. Here, I have crossed overbecoming more defiantly visible and committed to the politics of visibility, more dedicated to grappling with emotional residue and transformation within this humid, tiled geography.