With twenty minutes to spare before sunset last night, I saw a bearded man in a kilt starting up the walk-up trail at Stone Mountain. Of course I had to chat him up, I thought, and started calling out to him. I called out to him, louder each time —“Sir…sir…sir!”—but got no response until finally I tapped him on the shoulder and saw that he was deaf. I knew right then that this story was not going to be about his kilt. First things first, I asked him if he’d rather be referred to as deaf or hearing-impaired, and either works for him, though he leans toward deaf (implying this is just as hotly debated within the non-hearing community as are cochlear implants).
Originally from East Tennessee, just outside of Johnson City (the buckle itself of the Bible Belt of the South for those who don’t know), Joe is forty years old (turns 41 in 28 days) and, since 2002, has worked at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in the prosthetics department, mainly on ankle foot ortheses (AFOs). As a baby, meningitis had damaged his hearing, and by the time he was about 15, he could only partially hear in his right ear, the one with a hearing aid. He’s a self-described waterfall enthusiast, and when I asked him if he could actually hear waterfalls, he said yes, he could, that they’re loud enough.
In many ways I’m glad Joe was wearing a kilt, as it really broke the ice and gave me a minute to basically wrap my head around how I was going to communicate with him and his friend Heather, 30, who had also just joined us. They met a couple of months ago at a deaf social held the first and third Friday of every month at the Starbucks inside the Barnes & Noble on Highway 124 in Lawrenceville (Georgia Perimeter College students of ASL often attend—other such deaf socials take place in Decatur, Roswell, and in the Cumberland Mall area, among others). So, about that kilt! It was Joe’s first time ever wearing one. After seeing a few guys wearing them at DragonCon over Labor Day weekend, he half-joked that he wanted to get in touch with his Viking and Scottish ancestry.
I felt vulnerable and irresponsible for not knowing American Sign Language. It reminded me of the time I spent a summer in Venezuela and how my head would hurt early on from not being able to express myself freely or understand what others were saying around me (utter torture, for those who know how much I love to talk!). And yet, Joe and Heather, a cake decorator at Kroger, could expertly read my lips. I was at once embarrassed and impressed. As we walked together, we stopped numerous times, because they needed to see my face while I talked (no kidding, I actually walked right into a suspension line at one point, because I wasn’t looking at where I was going, and we laughed, grateful it wasn’t one of the gum poles).
Sunset blanketed the mountain before we reached the top, because of all of the stop-and-go and the quick video interviews in sign language and photos (it was my fault!). The coolest was when Joe and Heather signed the word “mountain” for me (see photo)!