Speaking Up

Tzila Seewald-Russell, 25, answers Lilith’s emailed questions about being deaf,
a student, and a newlywed.

I grew up attending an all-girls yeshiva — Shulamith, in Brooklyn — and I didn’t have any experience in speaking to boys, except for my four brothers and my best friend’s brothers. A boy I grew up with told me boys in his camp bunk thought I was very weird. I was very hurt, and I thought that it was for two reasons. I was a tomboy and didn’t care about makeup and fashion and I am deaf/hard of hearing. I didn’t date until I was 20 years old. I remember one of my classmates knew a boy from my camp and IM’ed him asking if he knew me. He replied, “Oh the deaf girl.” I was so hurt! Not because I am deaf, but all he saw me as was as the deaf girl — not a human being or a girl — and my friend gave me that “pity” look! I hate the pity look. Look, I don’t mind if you describe me as the deaf girl, but try to add something else that describes me to show that I am Tzila Seewald! If my friends describe me as “a deaf girl” I am fine with that, because that person accepts me as a human being. But a stranger — no way!

I wasn’t always proud being deaf. My parents tell this story to show what kind of a person I was when I was younger (and I regret that). When I was fourth grade, some deaf organization asked me if I wanted to learn sign language. I replied with chutzpah. “No way! That is for deaf people!” I was trying so hard to get rid of the label “deaf” on my forehead. I wanted to be accepted by hearing people!

I gave mixed messages growing up. On one hand, I worked very hard not get labeled deaf but on the other hand, I was damn proud of my cochlear implant and my deafness. It was a confusing identity. One advantage of being the only girl who is deaf or hard of hearing in my school was that everyone knew my name. I was unique. I felt very popular. And I knew my principal and teachers stood behind me.

When I entered college, I was confused and felt very deaf!! Nobody knew me. I didn’t feel I fit into the norm… until a few months later my male cousin introduced me to his friends. I will always be in his debt. These friends included me with open arms without looking down on me! But I noticed a difference between my college social group and high school. I was tired of trying to be like a hearing person. I wanted to know more about Deaf culture. I took sign language classes during college! That was awesome! All those Deaf people. They were SO COOL and so nice. The students in A.S.L. class were hearing people!!! They were drinking in every word (or sign)! That was a huge power shift!

As I was growing up, at my family table my father always translated for me so that I could be included in the conversation, and I loved it. My father likes the concept of feminism. He believed that I should go to college and into a master’s program. He taught me that men are not allowed to take advantage of me. He taught me how to be independent. He told me that I always have to ask my husband to do things in the house so I don’t feel all the pressure is on me to be a superwoman. Because of my father, I am always known as a feminist even if my brothers made fun of me for it.

My mother is a homemaker. When I was a little girl, I always thought my mother didn’t share my concept of feminism. I changed my mind about my mother’s “feminist” perspective when I was 17 and found out about my Usher’s Syndrome. My eye doctor told me the tragic news. I asked my parents to explain it to me again. My father told me the truth, that I might be blind in the future. I was crying hysterically. When we got home, my mother told me, “You can do anything, despite this bad news. Don’t let this pull you down! Do what your heart tells you to do. Go out there and become something that you want to be!” That powerful message will stay with me forever.

That leads to my dating life. People told me it would be impossible to date a hearing person, or that it would be very hard to get married because I am deaf. Obviously I didn’t listen to what they said, because I have a hearing, normal amazing husband who supports everything I do (even letting me keep my last name for my professional career and letting me hyphenate my last name and his last name in our marriage license).

My matchmaker told my husband-to-be about my deafness. He was very curious what I would be like. He thought I might be ugly, speak very unclearly and have social awkwardness. We went out, and he was so shocked that I was nothing like the stereotype of deaf people. According to him, he thought I was beautiful, and very good at socialization. The first date we went on, he fell in love with me. (For me, on the other hand, it was on our third date). We got engaged within a month!

Before I met my husband, I remember reading about a blind woman who delivered a baby. A social worker came to her at the hospital and asked if she was planning to give her baby away, since a blind mother can’t take care of a baby! The mother yelled at the social worker to get out of her room and told her she was keeping her baby! I applauded the mother, but I was sad about this social worker’s attitude.

When I was a teenager, I told my friend I never babysat for children besides my nephews. She said, “Yeah right! Even though you don’t hear as well as hearing people, you will be more responsible than a regular babysitter. I know you won’t watch TV, and you will read a book right next to the door where the baby is sleeping, unlike other babysitters.” That’s what I did with my nephews! Therefore I knew I would do as well as the rest of mothers, just in a little different way.