A couple of weeks ago, I was fishing on the Cowlitz River for returning cutthroat trout. That sunny day was filled with plenty of tasty fish and beautiful, thought- provoking, fall scenery.
One of those thoughts was how I became deaf, and that I never have said much about this in any previous columns. My hope is that perhaps my own experiences might be helpful to someone who has recently become disabled.
I clearly recall the morning when I first lost my hearing. I had dizzy spells a few days before and ever since had a loud ringing in my ear. It sounded like I had been to a loud rock concert the night before and my hearing was just recovering.
Long story short, it was the beginning of my path toward becoming deaf because of Meniere’s disease.
Meniere’s is a strange and unpredictable condition. There’s no known cause, nor is there a cure. It can cause dizziness and fluctuating hearing loss ranging from mild to profound. Unfortunately, when Meniere’s hits, it’s a roll of the dice with the odds in favor of the house that you’ll likely have permanent hearing loss.
Often, disability strikes suddenly and without warning. Nobody is immune or exempt from the potential of becoming disabled; even Superman has his Kryptonite. The hardest part when disability happens is confronting the question: What do I do now?
I have to admit I’d still be stuck in my former cozy vacuum regarding what disability is and what it is not, if I hadn’t lost my hearing. It hasn’t always been the easiest thing to deal with — all of the sudden changes. However, I’m deeply appreciative of what this experience continues to teach me. I feel strongly that the deeper perspective of what really counts far outweighs the physical losses and limitations.
From a professional standpoint, you could say that I’ve arrived at the stage of acceptance. There are a few models for the cycle of accepting a disability, or worded differently, the stages of grief. Most models follow this path of progression in this order: denial, pain, anger, depression, reconstruction, and acceptance.
It’s possible for someone to be in multiple stages at the same time, but it doesn’t always mean that a person will go through the stages in sequential order. For most people, it takes years of struggling and soul searching to arrive at acceptance. Sadly, there are some whose self esteem never recovers and forever remain cycling in the stages of pain, anger and denial.
Although many eventually accept their disability, it doesn’t eliminate the seemingly endless social stigmas and stereotypes. It’s astonishing how many people assume that having a disability makes someone less intelligent or less qualified than others. It bugs me when people assume that because I’m deaf it also means my IQ dropped 100 points.
Overcoming disability is a complicated and daunting process, but with the right attitude it’s not impossible. Success is inarguably linked to a series of conscious and positive personal choices that are carried out regardless of surrounding circumstances or what others believe. Inevitably, life’s final outcomes are what we choose; we can choose to be happy or miserable.
Robert Frost captured in his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” the powerful effect personal choice has when we live life on our own terms. Summarizing his fateful decision, he said: “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Stephen Roldan, a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, is statewide coordinator of deaf services for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation within the Department of Social and Health Services. He can be reached at email@example.com.