Back in 2017, I wrote the first of many blog posts on my experiences as a deaf graduate student and it was the first post that resonated so deeply with everyone – folks from hearing, deaf, Deaf and hard of hearing communities, one of which was Keerthana. Through Instagram DMs, we connected immediately, sharing identical sentiments of how affirming and wonderful it is to see and know another brown woman with hearing loss.
Internet friends turned into real life friends and thought partners. Within minutes into having this conversation, Keerthana and I joked that this interview could easily turn into a 4-part series. There is so much to learn from her and I’m so happy to debut the Hearing Together Series with her.
Keerthana, tell the people who you are!
My name is Keerthana (Kheer-thuh-nuh) and I am a second generation Tamil-American and the eldest daughter of immigrants. One of the earliest things that defined me was my hearing loss – I wasn’t diagnosed until after I started first grade in the United States in 2001. Growing up, I always thought community meant identifying with people who looked like you, but I learned it was much more than that when I failed a school hearing screening test. This very much shaped my identity as a hard-of-hearing Indian American. I only recently claimed my identity as disabled as well and I am still learning what that means.
You’re an audiologist! What made you want to be an audiologist?
I didn’t consider this as a career choice until college. I always knew I wanted to have a career that effected change, but I didn’t know what shape it would take until I enrolled in a doctorate in audiology program. In contemplating this as my career choice, it led to a subconscious internalization of my own life. If I have hearing loss myself, then how would I be able to do this job, even more so when I, myself, knew what the job would entail?
I once had an experience when I visited a deaf and hard of hearing school in the country where I am from and the lady there said, “Oh you didn’t tell me you have hearing loss. We can’t have you work today.” It made me feel confused. That experience made me think about what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I didn’t realize how much that experience impacted me in terms of seeking community.
Even through that, I became an audiologist. I am coming up a year in New Mexico as an audiologist who works with kids and adults, and I love it more than I thought I would. A fellow audiologist with hearing loss reminded me that even though I may share my hearing loss diagnosis with my patients, their experiences are still their own. With that, I may not fully relate to their struggles and joys, and it helps me to keep in mind that disability communities are not a monolith, regardless of how they identify and/or if they wear a hearing aid, cochlear implant, etc.
Let’s dive into the communities within hearing loss. Last summer, you shared an Instagram story outlining the 3 different communities – Deaf, deaf and hard of hearing – and it was not something I was familiar with. Can you share the importance of this language and how you identify?
In graduate school and after reading the book Disability Visibility by Alice Wong, my identities shifted slightly but meaningfully from ‘hearing-impaired’ and ‘differently-abled,’ to ‘hard-of-hearing’ and ‘disabled,’ as I realized it is important to emphasize the impact that hearing loss has on my life (‘hearing-impaired’ is now considered to be outdated and ableist terminology), while renouncing the stigma that exists with having a disability, particularly in the South Asian community. It wasn’t until I met you that I met someone who is brown and identifies as deaf, but I’m realizing even to this day I know very few brown d/Deaf people.
Additionally, when considering identity-first language, calling someone deaf when they identify as Deaf, or calling someone hard-of-hearing when they identify as deaf, can have deeper ruptures. It is equally important to acknowledge the economic privilege of being able to hear like being able to afford several sets of hearing aids and undergo cochlear implantation, as healthcare insurances unfortunately do not view these devices or procedures as medical/essential but rather, cosmetic/elective.
With this identity-first language, how does that influence your work as an audiologist?
Working as a hard-of-hearing audiologist, I have to be mindful of my own experiences vs. that of my patients i.e. where is the fine line between empathy and projection? As someone who has a hearing aid and a cochlear implant, I found myself connecting with my d/Deaf patients, who often times have or rejected an implant for themselves, in a more personal way compared to other patients. While my parents made the decision for me to get hearing aids at the age of six, my decision to get a cochlear implant at the age of 23 was one of my own accord. The takeaway here is that communication is essential, regardless of devices. I try to emphasize to my patients, particularly when young, that you can have hearing aids or a cochlear implant AND still learn/use sign language, and it it not mutually exclusive.
However, sign language and cochlear implantation continues to be a touchy subject in our field. The Deaf community stands by deafness not being something to “fix” like with a cochlear implant, per the medical model of disability, but then there are deaf people who may not know sign language because of, per the social model of disability, a lack of access to technology and sign language classes, for example. Even with this idea of ‘normal hearing,’ you can have normative hearing levels but normalcy is so subjective.
For example, my hearing post-cochlear implantation improved from a severe/profound hearing level range to normal/mild hearing level range, but I do not have (nor have I ever had) ‘normal hearing.’ Since I do not identify as d/Deaf, I highly recommend reading Sara Novic’s fictional novel entitled True Biz. The story is set in a Deaf boarding school, where you see various families and backgrounds enmeshed in this larger commentary on Deafness, disability, and community (and the best part – there are sign language glossaries & historical tidbits interspersed between chapters!).
The last thing I’ll say is that growing up, I was so fortunate in having strong support systems inside and outside school, peers and teachers alike, to aid my family and me in a new journey of ours. Similarly, in graduate school, I lucked out with the best cohort and advisor team, who were there for me before and after my surgery, and I even had my cochlear implant turned on by one of my classmates!
When focusing on the communities at large, by no means do d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people exist in isolation, but having a disability can still feel physically and emotionally isolating, regardless of age.
I share that to say that my disability rarely existed as a means of exclusion, only as a means of agency and empowerment, which is a rather idealistic reality.
What is a question you wished I asked you?
I’ll answer this as what I wish people knew about disabilities, which is to simply ask and not assume, and I’d rather have you over-accommodate than under. The number of times my coworkers have asked me if I can hear them okay at a party (and moved if not!), people in my life turning on/requesting captioning without my asking, and my fellow grad school cohort asking our professors to use the damn microphone because no one’s voice is loud enough, including my own – it’s the little things. Everyone can do something; you just have to ask.
And that’s a wrap on Hearing with Keerthana. Before this conversation, I wasn’t aware of the social and medical models of disability. A year ago, I wasn’t familiar with the language used to describe the different communities within hearing loss. By having the understanding and language on how to identify ourselves is what helps us communicate with the world and with ourselves.
When we first met for breakfast on a snowy morning in Boston nearly 4 years ago, she noticed me adjusting my implant and it was such a small thing but it felt like that this secret only her and I both knew and it felt safe.
Thank you, Keerthana.
 Sarah Buder & Rose Perry, Ph.D. The Social Model of Disability Explained. April 2022.
 Medical and Social Models of Disability. Office of Developmental Primary Care at the University of California at San Francisco. September 2022.