24 November 2010

Community Building: Why We Need Young Adults

Community Building: Why We Need Young Adults
© Rhianon Elan Gutierrez and Rachel McCallum
Originally published in The Hearing Loss Californian
Winter 2010

What defines a community? We have pondered this ever since we first met two years ago as undergraduates at Chapman University. We’ve talked, listened, blogged, and mingled with new friends at deaf and hard of hearing related events and made it our mission to advocate for greater empowerment, stronger support networks, and more inclusive means of participation in our larger society. In the process, we’ve developed our own vision of what defines a community and asked ourselves what a young adult community would look like.

A hard of hearing community is often interpreted as a gray area composed of many people with varying degrees of hearing loss who may or may not feel entirely comfortable in either the mainstream hearing or Deaf worlds. It presents a challenging and interesting arena for communicating in many different ways. Statistics show that there are significantly more people who are hard of hearing than culturally Deaf, yet we don’t know who these people are because hearing loss isn’t easily spotted on the streets or in grocery stores. We may have to speak, miss more than a few words, show the tech devices that help us to hear and comprehend sound, or communicate with our hands in order to be identified as someone with a hearing loss.

Why is it important to be a part of a hard of hearing community? Sometimes we choose our community; other times, we find it. Maybe we need it to understand ourselves or to feel empowered. Or we simply need to know that our presence in this world matters--that there are others who share our goals and understand our experiences without us having to explain too much. A community is developed and sustained through support from the individuals within it and outside of it.

As members of the emerging younger generation, we’ve witnessed that the accomplished and respected members of HLAA are getting older. We’ve heard the stories that speak highly of the organization’s founder, Rocky Stone, who truly started it as a grassroots movement in 1979 with the name Self Help for Hard of Hearing People. We are grateful that he and many other members have achieved so much for those with hearing loss. Yet, we are cognizant of today’s realities in which technology is an important tool in communication. It shouldn’t replace the face to face companionship that this organization values, but it should not hinder our ability to reach out to those who are miles away and still seeking comfort from someone who understands them. Recently, we have had conversations with many older members throughout the state who have expressed their desire to bring in younger members and their difficulty in doing so. They’ve asked us to give them solutions, but we both have found that these solutions aren’t easy. Goals need to be set and people need to take the initiative to see them through. We know that we can’t accomplish these goals on our own. We need more young people to be involved.

Many people with hearing loss go through a process of denial before they are open to meeting others who also have a hearing loss. For adolescents, the process of self-acceptance is often chaotic. They usually have their core group of friends from school, religious or spiritual organizations, sports, and their neighborhoods, which may or may not include people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The same is also true for college students, but the community options are expanded a bit more to include social groups that focus on a cause or activity. During adolescence and young adulthood, the process of acceptance of one’s hearing loss should not be rushed. It is necessary to have a mentor or person to support and challenge a young adult to do his or her best no matter what.

For working professionals and seniors, communities often center on the home, religious or spiritual organizations, work, neighborhoods, and, in the case of seniors, retirement homes and senior centers. Working professionals may experience isolation if they know no one with a hearing loss. The workforce, as diverse as it is, does not have many hard of hearing people identifying themselves as such. We have met many adults within HLAA who were in this situation. HLAA serves an important role for those members who long for a community that “gets them.”

The older generation does not lack the initiative to bring in younger members. They just need more support to do so. The tools are there but they are often scattered and confusing. There are also issues with having an insufficient amount of members to do specific tasks, the availability of members, or the lack of skills among chapter members either due to age, interest, geographical location, and/or money, among others.

The big question is: how does one bring in new members in this increasingly technological world? Internet and computer skills are necessary to gain attention to one’s cause and to provide resources. We strongly urge members to work towards gaining more technological skills because it will help chapters gain more visibility. Consistency is also important to ensure chapters keep themselves visible.

We believe in the importance of grassroots coalition building. Our organization was founded on it. This is exactly the kind of engagement that we need to see from local chapters. Getting more young adults actively involved will increase the appeal of the organization to other young adults. We know what appeals to other young adults and can teach the older generation how to more successfully utilize technological marketing tools that seem second nature to us. Efforts to get more young adults involved will most likely be slow but will hopefully grow exponentially with the aid of technology.

What we need is to reach a point of critical mass. We need to get enough young adult leaders involved to start our own smaller group within the organization . We must first get the word out that you don’t have to hide your hearing loss because “the only other hearing impaired person you know is your grandmother.” This will take time. The older generation may have to start by getting more working adults in their thirties and forties involved to bridge the existing generation gap. With time, bringing in younger members one small group at a time may lead to more involvement of young adults with hearing loss.

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