Coming To America – A Deaf Woman’s Journey Of Healing Being deaf and not having support when growing up is a big trauma

There is this saying, ‘I cried because I had no shoes, till I saw a man with no feet.” No doubt, our trauma is valid and we have a right to feel resentful, angry, sad, and hurt. Sometimes, we can get so focussed on ‘what’s wrong’ and lose sight of ‘what’s right.‘ I have learned that building within me a feeling of gratitude for my blessing helps me shift my perspective from lack to abundance.

Recently, I connected with Martha Tawney, a deaf woman from Poland who came to America to study when she was 21. She was born deaf but due to her mother getting German Measles while she was in-utero. Since I grew up with a deaf cousin, I felt immediately connected to her.

Like me, she too is also on this difficult journey of healing childhood trauma, scoliosis, back pain, and chronic fatigue.

Chatting with her,  made me aware of the additional challenges a deaf person has in relation to life and particularly healing trauma.

Coming To America – A Deaf Woman’s Journey Of Healing
Martha and her husband Rob love traveling, hiking, and trying different cuisines

We first connected on Facebook over scoliosis, a condition we both have. We both share the assumption that most cases of idiopathic scoliosis are due to having to repress our emotions when growing up.

Over the past months, we have been regularly sharing the ups and downs of our journey and sharing our discoveries i.e books, remedies, and other miscellaneous things that make a good supportive relationship. I thought my readers would find her story enlightening and helpful. It does help  to put yourself in someone else’s shoes sometimes.

Here is her story in her own words, that she was gracious enough to share with my readers:

1) Why did you come to America? How has coming to America changed your life?

My brother knew an American lady who knew a little about American Sign Language and deaf culture convinced my mom and me to go to Gallaudet University (Deaf college) in Washington, DC. I didn’t want to come here but my mom sent me here.

After one year, I realized that I could be more independent here than in Poland. America has changed me gradually to learn independence skills. America has taught all immigrants to be independent.

2) Was America very different from Poland and how did you deal with the changes you had to cope with?

It was a bit different. Here is more respect and less discrimination for a disability. Here are strong human rights. However, I had to cope with Americans who questioned me about World War II experiences. I was unprepared to answer that.

3) How did you communicate when a child?

During childhood, I was not allowed to use Polish Sign Language so I was asked to speak orally Polish. I was taught to read lips in Polish. Though I wanted to learn Polish Sign Language I was not allowed to learn it.
I have spoken Polish verbally and read lips to communicate with mom, dad, and brother. I have missed their speaking 40% of the time. They would be angry at me if I don’t understand them. And had no patience with me. They refused to learn sign language. I have felt that my body tightening with them because they have yelled at me all the time and also have abused me physically and mentally. They have cursed at me.
When I was 18 years old, I started to pick up Polish Sign Language with deaf friends.

4) Did you know English?

Yes. Started to learn English during 4th grade in Poland.

5) Was it difficult to learn American Sign Language? Was it difficult to switch from Polish to English when communicating?

No, it wasn’t. It was a bit difficult to switch from Polish to English. Polish is a Slavic language that is cold. English is a beautiful language to learn faster.  I didn’t miss the information through ASL that’s 99% transparent communication

6) How was growing up deaf in Poland? Are there any special facilities there for the deaf?

Growing up deaf in Poland was difficult because learning sign language was not allowed. Had to learn lips in Polish. However, there are speech therapies for young children from 2 to 8 years old.

7) When did you begin school? How was your experience?

I began to go to preschool for the deaf when I was 2 years old. Then I was sent to a hearing preschool close to my home. The hearing school made me tired because reading lips was missed a lot and fear increased gradually. Completed elementary school, high school, academy of fine arts were the most tiring because I had a hard time reading lips without Sign Language Interpreters and notetakers.

8) When did you realize you were different from everyone else and how did the realization impact you? Your self-esteem?

I realized that I was different when I was in preschool. Everyone was speaking fast. My self-esteem was pretty low when I had to socialize with hearing children. I asked my mom to send me to school for the deaf many times. She rejected me. I have struggled with low self-esteem for most of my life.

9) Was your family supportive? Or did you feel alone?

No, they weren’t but it was basic support, for example, housing, food, and clothing.
My father whacked me very hard and I had bad bruises. I remember that the nurse was very upset about me and scolded my father.
My mother once slapped my cheek. She had often devalued me, judged me, and cursed at me. She had made my low self-esteem and fed fear to me. I lost trust in her after I was married to my husband.
My brother has beaten me after he had full rage during his whole childhood.
Most painful was my relationship with my mom. I didn’t feel courageous to talk with all of them. It is good to talk with you about feelings. I think I lost the courage to talk with people in person because of my mom

10) How did you cope with your loneliness and pain when you were a child?

I felt alone but I had spent a lot of time with my cat. I cherished my memories during childhood times when my cat often spent time with me and purred with me a lot. It helped me forget the bad things. My bad memories about my mother and brother

11) When were you diagnosed with scoliosis? What treatment did you have?

I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 8 years old. But I was not qualified for surgery because my degrees were not over 50 degrees. I had treatments for home exercises and bracing. I was asked by the doctor to exercise at home and then I was ordered to stay at a sanatorium (but I hated the sanatorium so much).
Both parents didn’t ask me to exercise daily. I started to exercise by myself but my mom yelled at me to clean home instead of exercise. I was so shocked and painful what she did to me

12) Does anyone in your family have scoliosis?


13) Did scoliosis affect your body image? Personally, I was so ashamed of my curved spine?

My scoliosis didn’t affect my body image. Just back pain and fatigue.

14) How did you start trying to heal scoliosis naturally?

A yoga trainer at Open Sky Yoga Center believed in me that I could heal my scoliosis. I was surprised by what he said to me. For 10 years now I have been focussing on healing my scoliosis.

15) What physical exercises Do you do regularly for scoliosis?

Planks including side planks, hip bridges, and crawling.

16) When did you become aware of childhood trauma, and how it may have impacted your life?

I was about 21 years old. My life has been impacted by my social anxiety. My mom had influenced me to be a complainer. I realized that complaining is negative vibes and bad karma. I have been practicing reducing my complaining and I now feel more peaceful.

17) Are you aware of the ACEs study? What do you think is your score?

No, I was not. Googled it to find it. My score was 6/10. Emotional and social problems are true.I remember that I was in constant fear during childhood and before puberty. It made sense to me.

18) Did you have therapy? Are there adequate facilities for the deaf in terms of healing from trauma?

Yes, at that time Cognitive Behavior Therapy was available only. It was a limited resource for depression and anger management. Therapy for trauma was unavailable.
I have met deaf counselors but they didn’t have counseling certificates. Then I met hearing counselors with American Sign Language (ASL) counselors. They were ok. Self-help books are great. I think this year I have seen many advertisements of deaf counselors and hearing counselors who know ASL well around the USA. I have heard that counselors may be better private than counselors at hospitals.

19) What self-therapy do you practice?

I have learned that I am responsible to take care of my negative emotions by myself and build independence skills. I have learned to work on soothing my stress, tension, and sadness. It worked for me to use recreational therapies, for example, breathing techniques, walking in nature, chanting, humming, and listening to soothing music (Martha can use hearing aids to listen to music. Her left ear is better than the right ear), painting, tasting healthy food, watching funny movies, talking with positive friends, sunbathing, and so on.

20) What did you graduate in? And has it helped you find the job you dreamed of? Or do you feel deaf people are still discriminated against in the workplace?

I graduated with Associate Degree. It may be helpful to have available unlimited jobs. Some deaf people are still discriminated against in the workplace, for example, lack of ASL interpreters.

21) Do you feel there are fewer opportunities for the deaf in terms of career in comparison to normal people?

It is hard to find office jobs. Mostly, deaf staff have to work at physically taxing jobs like cleaning rooms at hotels, carrying heavy boxes, washing dishes, and so on.
Yes, some deaf people have opportunities to be a Professor, Doctor, Nurse, Lawyer, and so on.

22) Did meeting your husband Robert help you overcome some of the pain and loneliness of growing up deaf?

Yes, it did help to have a partner who is also deaf. We understand each other well. Rob has his leadership skills and loves leadership for years. I am still learning a little about leadership. He is an extrovert – receives more energy from people. I am introverted – receive energy after spending quiet time.

23) Do you feel if you had grown up in the US your life would be better in terms of having better facilities from childhood?


24) Do you feel you have gotten better since coming to America, in terms of both mental and physical health?

Yes, over time.

25) Who is your inspiration?

My inspiration is Marshall Rosenberg of Nonviolent Communication. Reading his book has helped me reduce my social anxiety

26) Do you think the movie ‘Children of a Lesser God’ accurately portrays the challenges of a deaf person?

No, it is not today. It was the past. American Sign Language is recognized throughout the United States.

27) How are you helping other deaf people manage their life better? In terms of work and social life?

Both, Rob and I have worked for Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services. I have advocated for Deaf Refugees to manage their lives and to learn independence skills. We are also in the process of creating the Global Deaf Refugee Alliance. Additionally, we also arrange hikes and cookouts for deaf refugees. We can be contacted at the email address, [email protected]

28) What plans do you have for yourself in terms of sharing your unique gifts with the world?

Teaching peace in the mind, boundaries, and human rights.

Some of Martha’s Favorite Things:

 Foods: Cherries and green grapes

 Movies/TV Series: Grey’s Anatomy

Martha’s Favorite Books:

Healing from a Narcissistic Relationship: A Caretaker’s Guide to Recovery, Empowerment, and Transformation Margalis Fjelstad 

The Courage to Heal –  Ellen Bass, Laura Davis

Extraordinary Healthcare –  Sri Ananda Sarvasri

Learning To Communicate and Understand

Thanks, Martha for sharing your journey and the wonderful resource to help me learn American Sign Language (ASL). I wish I knew ASL when growing up. It would have helped me better communicate with my deaf cousin Cookie. There were so many times she felt frustrated trying to make me understand what she wanted to communicate.

How to Prevent Deaf Children from Language Deprivation?

For a society to be inclusive to people who have physical challenges, society must learn their language of communication. It would be good to have basic ASL included in the school curriculum – it would really help everyone.

Do watch these movies on the struggles a deaf person has to deal with, particularly in their relationships with family, friends, and society.

A Silent Voice – The Movie – It is about a deaf girl named Shoko who encounters a boy named Ishida in her elementary school who bullies her as she was deaf.

Children Of A Lesser God – It is a love story between an idealistic special education teacher and a headstrong deaf girl.

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