I Learned to Read Lips: Strengthening Community with a More Inclusive Literacy Environment

Sitting in an empty classroom at Grandview Elementary School, a pair of big, plastic headphones were placed tightly on my head. One side was red, one side was blue, and as a first grader, I didn’t realize the significance they would have in my life.

The headphones were part of a hearing test, one that my parents were told that I had failed. Our visits to the pediatrician, and later a specialist, further confirmed that I was not able to hear out of my left ear.

Before getting a diagnosis, my mom always said that my speech was as soft as cotton, but in my head, my voice sounded so loud. As one of six children, I was the only one who was hard of hearing and for reasons unknown. You can imagine the confusion, both for my parents and for me.

At the time, the pediatrician warned my parents that children who are deaf or hard of hearing don’t usually do well in school, but I did. I guess there was a part of me that was determined to never fail another test. I learned to read lips, utilized closed captioning, and once I figured out the system of reading, I read a lot independently.

When I had my second hearing test in school, my teachers and the pediatrician were surprised and curious if my hearing had improved. It hadn’t – I just learned how to beat the test and raise my hand when I felt the vibrations in the headphones.

Learning and excelling in school weren’t a challenge for me, but social interactions were. When it was loud in a space or there were multiple sounds, it would be difficult to hear and I checked out mentally. In fourth grade, I finally met someone who also dealt with hearing challenges and no longer felt alone. I remember she had a sound amplifying device that reminded me of a Walkman. Our teacher wore a microphone, and her words went straight to my classmate’s ears. It was the first time that I saw a device that could help me, and I wanted one too – I had just never voiced it.

It wasn’t until I started college at Emory University that I found a community again. My school offered an ASL class, and the instructor was deaf. It was the first time in years that I felt at home and with others who could relate. I learned some sign language and was given my sign name – the letter “A” brushed up against a cheek like a smile, because I was always smiling.

Now as a mom to three children and an educator, I’ve learned to better notice the needs of the kids I serve. There are so many resources for families now – resources that I wish I had growing up. Hearing evaluations, support for parents and parent training programs, community, and a drive for an intense focus on language and literacy development are just a few of the things that are available for families.

At Memphis Oral School for the Deaf and Tennessee Schools for the Deaf, they are giving children the community I didn’t find until I was an adult. I didn’t even know there was a name for being able to only hear out of one ear until then. Both of these organizations are giving deaf and hard of hearing children and families the support, resources, and awareness, so that they don’t have to figure it out on their own.

That’s why I’m so proud to be the Special Projects Coordinator at Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation and be able to work on our Literacy Lights initiative, which this year hits really close to home. Through this initiative, we give the gift of reading to support communities that experience hardships.

This year, we partnered with Memphis Oral School for the Deaf and Tennessee Schools for the Deaf to offer their educators the opportunity to choose 1,200 books to support their efforts towards building vocabulary and developing oral language with their students, at no cost.

Books were my community. We sometimes forget about the different struggles that echo within the walls of homes. Literacy Lights is our response, turning challenges into chapters of resilience and triumph.

Literacy is for everyone. Books bond, and the stories found within their pages connect us all. The gift of reading not only gives children a brighter future, but it can bridge the gap between each of our own unique stories. When we create a more inclusive literacy environment for all, we strengthen our community and the stories that we create for the future.

Help us give the gift of reading. For more information on how to support literacy for Tennessee children, visit GovernorsFoundation.org.