Dennis Puent is 54 years old, a father to three kids, and has been deaf his whole life. He grew up in a fully-hearing family, except for one distant cousin on his father’s side of the family who is also deaf. Not only was Dennis the only one in his family that was deaf, but he was also the only deaf child out of nine siblings.
Imagine a household with ten loud children. There is screaming from room to room about what to play next, who is where, when is dinner, and all the chaotic noise that comes with a big family. There is fighting at the dinner table and important conversations before bed, but no way to understand any of this. Imagine the frustration of not being able to communicate with your own family. The natural reaction for most people in this situation seems to be the acceptance of loneliness and isolation, or to designate oneself in an outcast position from your own family. It feels logical for this type of situation to be followed up with a sad story about a disadvantage that led to trauma in Dennis’ life. However, it is actually the exact opposite for Dennis. It led to his success.
Dennis’ siblings and both of his parents only spoke English. They never learned ASL for him. Dennis did not accept being left out of the family and their conversations though. With the only way for him to communicate with his family being English, he had to work hard to adapt in order to communicate with them. “My great grandparents moved to America from Germany so me and my cousin are the first ones deaf in my family. But now my kids are deaf, so we are a first-generation deaf family. My mom taught me how to speak and how to make words with my mouth. All of my family talked, and I had to work really hard to learn to lip read” Dennis detailed as he described the feeling of being the first one deaf in his whole family. Over time, his mom was able to help him out and teach him English and how to read lips. This was one of the most difficult challenges Dennis has ever faced, but he did it. He learned how to speak English and read lips, not because it was easy, but because it was his only choice.
Forced Adaption to a Hearing World
The growth and adaption that most people of the deaf community have to go through is often not by choice. Unfortunately, the world is not always fair. It does not adapt to people, people adapt to it, and in the United States especially, a majority of the opportunities, experiences, and jobs provided involve working in the English language. American Sign Language is a language like no other. A lot of people get caught up in thinking that ASL is directly translated from English and that deaf people, who use ASL, also know English because they are thinking it in their head as they are speaking ASL. This is not true. ASL is its own language. For the deaf community, learning English is like learning a completely new language, not just learning to read lips. Most of the time, learning another language is a choice made by the person because of who they surround themselves with or what language they immerge themselves in. For the deaf community, they are immerged in other languages from hearing people all the time. Learning English and learning to read lips is an adaption that a lot of them are forced to make almost every single day.
The most impressive part of all the forms of adaption, learning, and progression that Dennis has had to go through is not even the intense knowledge, time, and practice that it took him to adjust to the flow of the hearing world. It is the attitude that he carries through it all. It is not an attitude of anger toward the world or unfairness, but an attitude of acceptance and gratefulness. While this may not be everyone’s experience and attitude toward it all, this is Dennis’ viewpoint of the forced adaption that he has had to make. He has had to learn a lot and has been forced to learn different forms of communication, but he has done it all with a positive outlook. Being deaf is not a disadvantage to him, it is just how he was born. He wants other people to see this and accept this as well.
Raising a First-Generation Deaf Family
Dennis grew up speaking English with and reading the lips of his hearing family. One could argue that it was an unfair disadvantage for him, but Dennis approached the topic with a grateful mindset. “I had to work really hard to learn to lip read. But knowledge is hard! Now, my kids are more successful,” he exclaimed as he reminisced on the impact his learning had on his family now. Dennis married a deaf woman and had three beautiful children with her: two deaf and one hearing. He proudly boasts of how they are a first-generation deaf family, but they are not impaired.
Dennis’ first child, Mia Puent, was born hearing. She learned ASL in order to communicate with her family. Mia is now graduated from college with two degrees and has moved onto a very successful job. His second child, Hannah Puent, was born deaf. She plays college basketball at Gallaudet, which is a deaf and hard of hearing school, and plans to graduate in two years. His third child, Dylan, was also born deaf. He is a junior at the Indiana School for the deaf and has become a basketball star!
Dennis is very proud of his kids and the success they have had and that they will continue to have. The challenges that he overcame and the learning that he accomplished growing up has benefitted him so much in raising his kids to communicate with everyone. “They are very intelligent. They know a lot and they know how to approach hearing people, no matter what,” he exclaimed. The growth that came from his obstacles as a child has now assisted his children and their ability to approach the world with a positive and capable outlook. He makes it known that his children’s success is well earned and deserved. Being deaf does not inhibit them. It is not their disability. It is a hearing impairment. It is simply the way that they were born.
Because of the adaption and growth that Dennis went through growing up in a fully hearing family, and the amount of learning he had to do in order to communicate with them, he was able to translate that knowledge over into a family of his own. Teaching his kids how to communicate with hearing people via body language, writing, lip reading, or technology was natural for Dennis. It was an important skill that he was able to pass on because of his own personal experience. However, it was not the lip reading, or communicating that was the most important to him. He wanted to make sure that his kids grew up knowing their value as a person. He taught his children that being deaf is not a disability or disadvantage for them. He made sure they knew that their worth, abilities, and opportunities are not hindered by how they were born. Communicating with hearing people is a part of life and a given. He taught them not to be scared of that, but rather to embrace their value as just the same. “I feel like we [people] are all the same,” Dennis stated.
We Are All the Same
Circumstances, routes in life, adaptions, certain opportunities, (etc.) may differ, but deep in the core of all people, we are all the same. We all feel the same. We all cry the same. We all dream the same. We all fall in love the same. And we all bleed the same. Learning to adapt to a hearing world is difficult. It’s a struggle, and it involves some serious dedication and frustration. When so many people around you are communicating the same way with each other, it can be easy to get mad and just give up because it is unfair. But deaf people do not really have a choice. Giving up is not an option for them, because so much of the world involves communicating with hearing people. They choose to persevere and adapt.
Many people think that calling deaf people “hearing impaired” is the respectful term. While that may be a true preference for some people of the deaf community, Dennis spoke in large for himself and the people in the deaf community that he knows. “We do not like to be called “hearing impaired”. That feels like you are saying that it is an impairment or disability. We are deaf. That is how we were born” Dennis said. To him, the classification of the word “impaired” makes a person of the deaf community feel labeled as a person with a disadvantage to the rest of the hearing world. He says that they feel like it would distinguish them into a certain group of things that they are “unable” to do. It makes them feel like they are seen as “missing something” or like there is something flawed in them. According to Dennis, that is the exact opposite of how they feel.
Communication Comes in Many Forms
Deaf people utilize the tools that they have been given and the knowledge that they are capable of, and they value every person as the same: deaf or not deaf. Utilizing tools to help them communicate with English speaking or hearing people is a technique well practiced among the deaf community. Technology has made certain forms of communication a lot easier.
A communication form like texting is a valuable tool for the deaf community when it comes to communicating quickly from far apart. One very helpful tool when it comes to having conversations over the phone is something called TTY calls. TTY stands for Telecommunications Relay Services. TTY allows people to talk on the phone with someone using text messages to translate out loud to the person on the other line. This service is available so that people of the deaf community can have phone conversations with English speaking or hearing people.
For the deaf community, finding services like Telecommunications Relay Services is just one form of adaption that the deaf community learns. For Dennis, it is a way in which he can communicate with the people that he needs to with a positive outlook. The determination that he has to set the standard for his kids in seeing themselves equally is a huge part of his life. Assisting his children in the confidence to have a conversation with anyone, whether they are deaf or not deaf, is a huge success for him. He wants his kids to understand his feelings that, deaf or not deaf, we are the same.
Break the Stereotypes: How Hearing People Can Better Understand
There is a lot of misinformation and stereotyping when it comes to the deaf community. Establishing more education on the topic of being deaf and ASL in general would tremendously help with this. Understanding the feelings and struggles of those in the deaf community is imperative to the growth of those trying to get away from this misinformation and stereotyping. Part of this understanding and communication comes from people being willing to treat every conversation, with every person, whether they are deaf or not deaf, with respect and openness. Taking on an attitude of acceptance is a huge part of this openness. There is a form of stereotyping that happens when one person treats another person in a conversation as if they are “lower” or “impaired”. It makes the other person feel as though they have some type of disadvantage in that conversation, the relationship, and even in life. In reality, however, that is not true at all.
Christine Leaf, an experienced ASL professor at the University of Evansville has seen and heard a lot of the struggles and stereotyping that the deaf community faces. Teaching ASL is teaching a language. ASL in the deaf culture is just another language, and deaf people want to be respected in conversations the same way someone who spoke Spanish would be. “They [people of the deaf culture] can’t understand why people don’t see that they are just like someone that is Spanish that comes to our country, or someone who is Italian or someone who uses another language. Their language is primarily used by hands, but it’s still a language. It has communication and meaning. And I think that’s one thing as a hearing culture, we don’t seem to always remember,” Leaf explained.
The deaf community is still fighting hurts and stereotypes to this day. The deaf culture used to be seen as deaf and dumb. This goes way back in history to people assuming, not so much that they were just deaf and using another language, but that deaf people were just incapable of understanding. They were thought of “lesser” than a person that was able to hear. “[Hearing people] don’t even understand that there is a culture involved. We still go back to our old instincts of them not being “as good as”, and that has been a hard thing for the deaf community to have to overcome” Leaf described as she detailed the challenges the deaf community still faces. For hearing people, beginning to understand the deaf culture, language, struggles, and stereotypes, can start the process of healing everything that has happened in the past and still happens now.
A person of the deaf community is not “lower”. They are not “impaired”. They are not at a disadvantage. They are not “unable” or “less worthy” of opportunities. They are the same. They just happen to have been born deaf. We are all the same. Deep down, every person is the same. It does not matter if they can hear or not. Dennis has faced some difficult obstacles in his life to get to where he is today and to raise his kids to where they are today as well. He didn’t have a choice but to overcome these challenges, but he has done it with dignity and determination to create a successful life for his kids and family. Every person deserves respect. Every person deserves positivity. Every person deserves openness and love. Deaf people should not be treated any different or lower. They deserve understanding and openness to growth from hearing people. They have overcome some huge obstacles. They have some very impressive communication skills and knowledge, and it is time that people start to see that.