Graduating, Interpreting & Realizing
When my kids were born 4 years apart, it never dawned on me that one day I would be attending two graduations just a couple of days apart. The schools here are broken up into elementary (K-3), intermediate (4-5), middle (6-8th) and high school (9-12). They have a big ceremony for 8th grade graduation, which just blew Dave’s mind – the school he went to was small enough that all grades through high school were in the same building and there was no such thing as 8th grade graduation. Paige’s class this year had around 260 kids, and Eric’s high school graduating class was around 600 (maybe a little more).
They both graduated in June – Eric on June 1 and Paige on June 4. (In between, we had Eric’s 18th birthday on June 3 … that’s why I haven’t been writing as much the past week. Busy, busy!) Normally I can’t hear anything at these kinds of ceremonies anyway – they’re always held in a big auditorium or gymnasium where sounds boom around, there’s tons of background noise, and we’re too far from the stage to actually see the person speaking (for lip reading purposes). But usually I could catch enough words to get the gist of what was being said, and of course I could chuckle in the right places when I heard everyone else laughing, I clapped when it was appropriate, etc.
Being completely deaf, however, is a whole different experience. It wasn’t until about a month before the actual graduations (actually, even less time, more like 2 or 3 weeks) that I realized I should ask for some type of accommodation. When I was merely hearing impaired, it would never have dawned on me to ask to be seated closer so I could read lips. Now that lip reading was my only chance at understanding, though, I wasn’t afraid to ask. Actually, I did ask for CART to be provided but neither school said they could do that. The high school said there wasn’t enough time to get it, and the middle school actually never responded to any of my emails – finally, a couple of days before graduation, my husband called them and they said sure, they could give us a spot up front so I could lip read. They were clueless about CART. (We did also email a local CART provider to see if we could get CART set up ourselves, but they never answered us.)
Well, I figured, no big deal. It’s not like I ever used to hear much at these things anyway – the main thing is getting to see my kids walk across that stage and get their diploma. The two graduation ceremonies, however, were such completely different experiences that it was startling and really opened my eyes.
We attended Eric’s high school graduation at the local community college, in their Physical Education building. My mom, Dave, Paige and I slowly made our way through the throngs of people to the front of the room, where we noticed “reserved” signs on folding chairs in the front row (albeit off to the very left side, not in the center in front of the person speaking). We weren’t sure if these were meant for us, because the ‘audience’ area was roped off and to the left, right and rear of these center chairs. I could see name tags taped to the center chairs starting in the second row, so I assumed this was where the graduates were sitting. There was a clearly marked Handicapped area to the left in the audience area, in the front 2 or 3 rows, and I thought maybe that’s where we were supposed to sit. I was looking around, trying to figure out who to ask when a woman noticed my confusion and asked if she could help me. I started to introduce myself and her whole face lit up while she nodded – she realized immediately who I was. It was obvious she was taking the time to speak slowly and clearly, and she walked me and my family over to the reserved seats in front of the graduates. It was very nice and handled really well.
There was a chair right in front of us (facing us) and we found out shortly that a sign language interpreter would be sitting there. She came in about 10 minutes after we did and introduced herself. She asked if I signed and I told her no, but I did read lips and did know a few signs (from Dave) – I just gave her a very brief explanation of my recent hearing loss. She was really nice and very easy to lip read. I realized that reading her lips would be 100% easier than trying to lip read the different people speaking, who were off to my right on the stage.
After the building was completely filled with people, a deaf couple did come in – they were the reason the interpreter was there. For some reason they sat behind us even though there was room up front next to my mom. At first it made me feel bad – I wasn’t blocking their view but I felt like they should be up there with us where it was easier to see. For whatever reason though, they seem to have asked for the seats to be in the second row (they had been set aside for them) so I stopped worrying about it. The funny thing was, once they arrived the interpreter would occasionally ask them questions (for instance, if they knew how many kids were in the graduating class) but since they were right behind me, I didn’t know if she was talking to me or to them!
Anyway, there was a huge bank of speakers right in front of us, suspended from the ceiling. My mom was grimacing once the band started playing (they were also right in front of us), saying it was so loud. She actually asked if I could hear it. LOL! I had no idea they were even playing – I was reading through the program and when I looked up, I realized the band members had raised their instruments and were playing. I could feel the vibration periodically from the drums, but that was it.
I had no idea when they stopped playing, but the interpreter began clapping and that was my cue to clap as well. I read her lips (and watched her signing, which was like a little lesson for me) throughout the whole ceremony. At one point a musical selection was performed (with vocalists) and she signed the words as they sang. I didn’t get all of what she said – my lip reading skills are best with my immediate family – but it was enough for me to be able to fill in the words I didn’t catch with logical guesses. I probably understood more of what was said in this ceremony than I did at other functions when I still had my hearing!
I was wondering if the interpreter would have to fingerspell all 600+ kids’ names as they crossed the stage (yikes), but the names were listed in the program and I was able to lip read the presenters well enough to catch where they were in the list. (She did ask us, BTW, if we wanted her to sign the names and we said goodness no!!)
All in all, it was a really nice ceremony and I was amazed at how much a sign language interpreter (who wasn’t even intended for me specifically) helped me. I know they have oral interpreters for people who just read lips, but I never really understood how that would be helpful. Now I do! Since she also spoke (or moved her lips – I have no idea if she used her voice) I was able to read her lips while she signed, plus I recognized some of the signs she used so that helped too.
My daughter’s 8th grade graduation was held in the high school gymnasium. I had been through this once before with my son four years before, so I had more of an idea what to expect. I knew that seating was in the bleachers (ugh) and the kids sat in folding chairs in the middle of room (the bleachers were on either side). We got there early and again couldn’t figure out where to sit. There was a ‘reserved’ sign taped a small bleacher section in the front row, but it wasn’t large enough for all four us to fit (me, Dave, Eric and my mom). There were also folding chairs marked “reserved” and “reserved – staff” next to these bleachers. Dave finally walked up to someone and they just waved us off to the bleacher area. Originally it was just me, Dave and Eric because my mom arrived later. The three of us squeezed onto this little section of bleacher, literally with our arms smashed against our bodies in order to fit. On top of this, the section they reserved for us was broken and the top (where you sit) was angled down in the back instead of being level. You couldn’t sit fully on top of the bleacher without sliding backward into the legs of the person behind you. We ended up perching on the very edge (and seriously, my butt is still sore from it) for 2-1/2 hours. Eric mentioned how uncomfortable he was and I urged him to sit somewhere else – after all, he didn’t need to lip read and there was no reason he had to be forced to sit there. He ended up across from us in the top row of bleachers, where we could see him and easily meet up with him again after the ceremony. That way when my mom showed up, she had room to squeeze in next to us – otherwise she would’ve had to sit somewhere else.
I had a feeling the same interpreter would be at this ceremony because she’d mentioned to the deaf woman behind me at the high school graduation that she had another graduation to do on Wednesday. Sure enough, I saw her come into the gymnasium from the opposite direction of where we were sitting. There was no chair set up for her anywhere though, and I wasn’t sure where she was going to sit. I saw her talk to some people who looked like they were in charge, and she walked around a bit, and then she disappeared. I kept expecting her to come back but she never did – I guess they sent her home! I was so, so disappointed.
We were closer to the people speaking this time so I was able to see their mouths better than at the high school graduation. However, most of the speakers were kids who were nervous and talking really fast. One girl appeared to be crying through her whole speech – she kept wiping her eyes. I had no idea what any of them said. Finally I just gave up and people-watched for 2-1/2 hours. I clapped when I saw other people clapping. The one benefit to sitting up front was having a great view of Paige as she walked up to accept her diploma, so that made it all worth it!
Still though, we came away from that ceremony feeling like we hadn’t been treated very well at all. It’s weird because they didn’t do anything wrong – they seated us up front as we asked them to, and we didn’t specifically ask for the interpreter. I guess it was just their attitude and the fact that the darn bleachers were broken that made it feel like a subpar experience.
I know, now, to ask for an oral interpreter at events like this. I know a lot of people rely on their spouses to mouth the words being said, but Dave is hearing impaired and doesn’t lip read, so he has an even harder time than I do in these situations. He also really liked having the interpreter there, which I think came as a surprise to him. We had no idea how much it would benefit us even though we don’t sign.
Now we know!