What it's like to be a deaf teenager during a pandemic
Alicia Mbesha and Kaï Haché talk about challenges and importance of community
What's it like being deaf or hard of hearing in a pandemic? CBC Ottawa reached out to two teenagers at a school in Ottawa to understand their experience.
Consortium Centre Jules-Léger teaches students from kindergarten to high school who are deaf, blind, deafblind, as well as those with learning disabilities. Because it is the only school in Canada outside Quebec that teaches students in French and using Quebec Sign Language (LSQ), many students live on campus.
CBC spoke to Alicia Mbesha (Grade 11) and Kaï Haché (Grade 12) — with the help of LSQ interpreter Ginie Petit — to learn about the challenges they faced during the pandemic, their experience at the school and their hopes for the future.
This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.
Do you identify as deaf or hard of hearing?
Kaï: I consider myself to be deaf and proud of it.
Alicia: My community knows my identity is definitely deaf, but with other people I will say that I'm hard of hearing. Often when I remove my hearing aids, I only speak verbally so hearing people can understand me. But my first language is sign language.
Your families both live in Ottawa, but you decided to live in the school's residence. Why?
Kaï: I love the residence because I can sign with my community. It's more social, I've got more accessibility with people through signing. I can speak my own language.
Alicia: I decided to go into residence [a year ago] because I felt very isolated at home. I don't have any other deaf people in my community who can understand me. So it was very important for me to be with my Deaf community.
For me, being in residence changed pretty much everything. We're all in a similar world. It's easier for me here because at home I'd have to repeat myself. People couldn't understand me.
How has the pandemic impacted your experience?
Kaï: [Despite living on campus] all my courses were online which made us very tired. We constantly had to watch the screen and try to follow.
Alicia: The masks made it very difficult for deaf people. We couldn't read lips for a long time. You also don't see people's facial expressions very clearly. It's impossible to communicate. We'd usually have to ask people if they didn't mind actually taking their masks off so we could communicate better.
What are your hopes for the future as you get closer to graduation?
Kaï: I would love to become an engineer or a teacher. I love robotics. It's my favourite domain.
Alicia: My hope for the future is to go to college or university in health care. I'm a person who likes the public and taking care of people, but I'm still not 100 per cent sure.
Kaï, you've been a student at this school since Grade 1. How do you feel about leaving and entering mainstream education?
Kaï: Here, all my courses are adapted for me in sign language. We have interpreters, teachers and specialists to help us.
I'd like to go to college first and after, if I can, I'd like to go to a university in Ottawa. But I'd like to have some help. I know I'll have access to an interpreter and accommodations to make things more accessible for me.
Alicia, how prepared do you feel to enter mainstream education after you graduate?
Alicia: I feel good, but I am a bit nervous to leave the school and my Deaf community as well. The change of environments, the interactions with everybody is going to be different. I will have to adapt.
At Consortium Centre Jules-Léger, we can stay in school until we reach 21 years of age. So we have more time. We don't have to graduate until we feel comfortable and ready.
What do you want people to know about your experience as a deaf student in Ottawa?
Kaï: Don't be afraid to ask us questions or ask me questions. I can talk. I can sign. I can communicate. I can write. I can communicate whichever way so we can exchange information. It's always possible to make it work.
Alicia: I want you to know that sign language allowed me to see the world in a different way. My identity is clear now. It's a beautiful language. It is really fun and I encourage anybody to learn this language.
My community is really wonderful. It's beautiful. It's a culture.
Very often people will ask me, 'Oh, can you become hearing? Is there a solution?' For me, it's like, 'No, I don't want to. I was born this way.'
I don't want to change. I can't become a hearing person anyway. I'm very happy the way I am. I am who I am.
COVID has put a spotlight on communication challenges faced by people who are deaf and hard of hearing, particularly because of the impact of masks. CBC Ottawa reached out to those in this community to ask about their pandemic experiences and what they want people to know about their lives.
If you have a story you'd like to share about being deaf, send us an email.