Joecelyn at National Conference wearing BGCA (in American Sign Language) shirt.

As Club teen Joecelyn S. says, “Just because you have a disability, it does not make you different from the rest of the world.” Read more about Joecelyn’s efforts to help herself and her peers in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community feel understood and valued.

What Inclusion Really Means to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Kids: Joecelyn’s Story
Posted 06/28/2023 by Joecelyn S. in Youth Voice

Kids who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing want what any kid wants — to feel like we belong and to reach our goals, whatever they may be. 

Still, not everyone believes that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people are just as capable as those who are not, and that’s a hard stigma for Deaf and Hard of Hearing kids to grow up with. It makes you doubt yourself because everyone else does (if you’ve ever felt like this, you know it’s a terrible feeling). But I know we’re infinitely more capable than people think we are.

When you find people who believe in you — like the many friends and allies I’ve found at home, at school and at my Boys & Girls Club — it can make all the difference.

Not Letting Others Define Me 

All my life, I’ve been misjudged and not believed, not only as a Hard of Hearing person but also as a young woman with Hispanic and Latina heritage. 

There have been times when I’ve used American Sign Language (ASL) in public and people assumed that I was throwing up gang signs rather than communicating with my loved ones. 

My teachers from kindergarten through fourth grade also assumed I didn’t want to pay attention in class when I repeatedly told them I could not hear. It took years of my parents and I advocating with the school system before I finally got an interpreter, and from fifth grade on my education soared because ASL helped me understand the material faster.  

By educating adults and my peers about ASL, I’ve been able to challenge the assumptions people make — not only about Deaf or Hard of Hearing people, but for People of Color, too. 

I've been asked if Deaf or Hard of Hearing people can listen to music or if we can drive. Yes, we can! We can do anything that hearing people can do. We may just have to work three times as hard to accomplish our goals.

My Club Experience: From Outsider to Advocate

Joecelyn with certificate and balloon

I had finally gotten the academic support I needed in school, but afterschool was another challenge.

I’ll be honest — my first few weeks at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Anaheim-Cypress were an uphill battle. When I joined in sixth grade as a Hard of Hearing person, I could not always understand what adults were saying or what was going on. 

I felt defeated, but when I told my parents that I didn’t want to go back, they encouraged me to talk to the staff and see what they could do to make things better. 

I took this as an opportunity to advocate for myself and educate the staff on how they could best support me, such as speaking slowly and making sure videos shown had subtitles.

As I began to feel more comfortable at the Club, I decided to try more youth programs and eventually took on leadership roles. In these roles, I got to make sure my opinions, and those of my fellow Club members, were heard and our ideas were used in Club programs.

But when I was offered the opportunity to participate in my Club’s Youth of the Year program, I turned it down. Youth of the Year empowers Club teens to speak publicly — sharing their stories — and at the time, I didn’t think my experience mattered or that I was brave enough to speak in front of a crowd. 

But with the right encouragement from my Club mentors, I was able to summon the courage to give it my all, knowing they would be there to support me every step of the way.

Ms. Erica reminded me that my experience goes beyond being Hard of Hearing and that by representing as our Club’s Youth of the Year, I was also showcasing what it means to be Hispanic and Latina. 

Ms. Jeri gave me pep talks and emotional support during my Youth of the Year journey, as well as in the final few weeks of high school. 

And after I earned the title of Youth of the Year for my Club (I did it!), Mr. Dustin gave me the confidence to share my story on stage with over 3,000 people at Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s 2023 National Conference, all while cheering from the sidelines, “YOU GOT THIS!”

All my Club experiences have made me a more confident individual, one who is better able to advocate for herself and others. Now younger kids at the Club with different abilities look up to me as their role model. Hearing my story also inspired a Club staff member to take an American Sign Language class to be able to better serve other Deaf or Hard of Hearing youth that may join the Club. I’m grateful that I’ve had just as much impact on my Club as it had on me!

Joecelyn and the American Sign Language class

Educating Others on What’s It’s Like to Be Hard of Hearing

It’s always been my mission to bring the hearing world and Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities together, especially in the spaces where I spend most of my time. 

At my high school, I started an ASL Club that encourages hearing students to practice simple sign language to better engage with Deaf or Hard of Hearing students. I also made daily videos for school during the pandemic about how to communicate with Deaf or Hard of Hearing people while wearing a mask. People tend to forget that many Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals rely on lip reading while having a conversation, so taking the time to remind others of this can make a big difference now that wearing masks is more common.

Through my Club’s teen program, I’ve been able to reach more people my age by creating videos for our Teen Center YouTube channel. In these videos, I walk through ASL basics like the alphabet and common greetings. I’ve even shared my own experiences in a personal video, “What it’s Like to be Hard of Hearing — A Teen Perspective”

Through these opportunities for education, I’ve learned to not be afraid of what others may think of me and to use my story to make changes within my own community.

How I Stand Up for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Communities

Joecelyn advocating for Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities

Not having realistic solutions to help Deaf or Hard of Hearing people navigate their surroundings is too common in this world. We as a society need to realize where we can do better. 

As an advocate, my mission is to educate others on what Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities need to have full access to communication in healthcare, education and everyday activities. 

When schools provide notetakers and interpreters without question, Hard of Hearing students like me get the resources we need to learn and collaborate with hearing students. And by making others more aware of these possibilities, they will question less why Deaf or Hard of Hearing people need the services provided for them. 

I was once told in elementary school that I couldn’t grow up to be a doctor because I was hard of hearing. “You’re wrong,” I replied. “There are Deaf and Hard of Hearing doctors in the world.” It didn't matter that I had not met one before; I knew people with disabilities could do anything they set their mind to. 

This is the message I want to spread in my future career as a deaf education teacher. By sharing my story with kids and teens, I can prove that people do not have to be defined by their disabilities. And if others in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, as well as those with Hispanic and Latino heritage, know that someone like them has overcame similar challenges, they’ll be more likely to believe they can, too.

This world is meant to be a diverse place. If we open ourselves to others’ experiences, more people can feel comfortable, confident and successful, just by being themselves.

Did You Know?  While “deaf” and “hard of hearing” are lowercased when describing a physical condition, they are capitalized when referring to the Deaf or Hard of Hearing communities or culture. Learn more at Diversity Style Guide.


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