Pardon me, but I am one of ‘those people’

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Dr. Myra Salcedo, Senior Lecturer and Mesa Journal Advisor

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First published Sept. 12, 1999, in the Midland Reporter-Telegram, with additions in January 2017.

By Myra Salcedo, Ph.D.

Here are just a few statements that were bandied about town (mostly in phone calls to me at the Midland Reporter-Telegram, a Hearst newspaper in Midland, Texas before Sept 12, 1999) when the 1999 City Council motion to name Fairgrounds Road for the slain civil rights leader failed due to the lack of a second motion:

   “Martin Luther King Jr. never came to Midland.”

   “He never did anything for me.”

   “He is a role model for the black folks so they should name a street for him on the black side of town.”

“What he did with the civil rights movement isn’t any more important than what some other Nobel Peace winners did, and we aren’t naming streets for them.”

   “Why do those people expect to have more rights than anyone else?”

Speaking of “those people,” although my skin is white, I am one of “those people.”  It’s because I benefit from the civil rights legislation pushed through by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., and I will take every advantage of my rights to have the same opportunities everyone else has. It’s called equality.

I have a disability, a hearing impairment, and I will not be shut out of any classroom or business because of it when I can do the work necessary, if not excel at it.

The problem is: Because of the way I was born (with a genetic hearing impairment), the playing field is not always level for me. As a student, I should be able to ask for special accommodations — increased volume, closed captions, tape recorded lectures, sitting near the microphones — or at the front of a room, because my hearing is not perfect. I want a shot at what almost everyone else has as a given, the ability to understand what is being said in a public place or classroom.

Thanks to the 1990s Americans with Disabilities Act, a direct outgrowth of civil rights legislation initiated by King, no teacher can claim that having me in his or her classroom is too much trouble. Ever notice how people asking for change or (accommodations to level the playing field) often get branded as “troublemakers?” Sometimes, in my case, trouble was defined as requesting to change my seat or to ask for transcripts of a university lecture.

In the early 1970s, I was a new 16-year-old student at a Texas university in a large city. I began the semester at age 16 having graduated from high school early. I was assigned to the back rows of all my classes due to the fact that my maiden name was Tatum. In those pre-computer days, students were seated alphabetically, and the teacher just looked at the empty seats and checked them off of a seating chart.

Two of my classes, history, and geology, were conducted with more than 200 students in auditorium-sized rooms. The history teacher mumbled into the microphone. Although I could hear an inaudible sound coming from his mouth, I was at a loss figuring out what he was saying. It was like trying to hear someone speaking underwater in a swimming pool. Most of the students — in the back rows — with normal hearing also had trouble making out what the teacher was saying.

My type of hearing loss is rare and genetic. I was born with it. I have a loss in the range of low tones, mostly men’s or soft-spoken women’s voices. The average hearing loss involves a loss of high tones. There wasn’t a hearing aid made during the ‘70s or ‘80s to remedy my problem. (In fact, it wasn’t until the recent advent of the digitally programmable hearing aids that I could correct for low tones without increasing the high tones to deafening levels.) This meant that if someone shut a microwave oven door, I jumped. The sound of clattering dishes and silverware in a restaurant was deafening and air conditioners turning on was a significant sound. I walked down a university campus—with borrowed hearing aids—for the first time and I heard shrill noises in the trees. I stopped a student to ask what all the noisy racket was in the trees. He said: “birds.” I sat down on the curb and cried, having heard birds for the first time as a teenager

Dr. Myra Salcedo

. Then I heard a car coming and jumped away from the curb. The car was a block away. I was shocked. I had never heard a car engine before until it was right up upon me.

I took the borrowed hearing aids to class, but they didn’t help. When I asked to be moved to one of the empty seats near the front of the university history class I was told they were being saved for students registering late and it would complicate the seating chart for the rest of the semester if I moved.

When I asked if I could trade seats with someone, I was told if I found someone willing to trade seats with me I could. When I asked that question after class one day, the other students just laughed. “Are you crazy? I can hardly hear that teacher, now,” said one student seated in the center of the auditorium.

Then I asked the teacher if I could bring a folding chair to sit down front in the aisle. (Yes, I was willing to stand out as the only student on campus carrying a metal folding chair from class to class.) “No,” he responded, “It’s a fire hazard.” Tape recording his lectures were also out as good notetaking was part of the lesson!

The same barriers cropped up in my geology class where the teacher said, “Get better hearing aids.” I even brought letters from the campus audiology center that tested my ears verifying they had no device that worked for my type of loss. I spoke to a university counselor who suggested I attend a smaller university as the faculty didn’t have time to “cater to people with special physical problems.” I was also advised that two other hearing impaired students had already dropped out.

Having geared much of my life to attending college to the point of skipping my senior year of high school, I dug in my heels in and suffered through the lectures. The worst part was watching other students take notes while I only caught one or two words out of every 100. They could hear! I wanted to be like them.  I practically memorized the textbooks and couldn’t find any way to fairly barter for lecture notes from students who suspected me of just slacking. In high school I tutored students in Spanish in exchange for math lecture notes that I couldn’t hear. I could not find a way “in” at the university level.

I received the only two “Cs” in my college career from the teachers who I couldn’t hear during the lectures. Today, I could demand that my seat be changed, but I wouldn’t have to demand this in an era where many institutions take pride in providing accommodations for the mentally or physically challenged. We’re not second-class citizens anymore. This is wonderful since being put into the position of demanding access to equal education or employment is downright humiliating. It’s so much easier to give up, quit or back down. But then you know you haven’t worn the path through the trees for the next student or child who comes along behind you.

In the grand scheme of things, does moving one student in a class of 197 diminish the education for the other students? What about a tape recorder operating near the teacher? How does that disrupt the classroom? It did when I was in college earning a Bachelor’s degree.

But by asking for a fair shot (sitting within hearing range) of a teacher I became one of “those people who expect to have more rights than anyone else.” Just think, if I sit near a speaker I hear 80 percent of what is said instead of 35 percent (from the back row). Hearing cannot be corrected to nearly 100 percent like eyeglasses—which come pretty close to correcting vision.

The one thing I “heard” loudly and clearly in my first years of college was that I was a troublemaker who was demanding extra attention and concessions—a whiner.

I am grateful, however, to all the elementary school and junior high teachers who let me sit near their desks and made a real extra effort to help me. Even though I had 20/20 vision, I learned by first grade, when the teacher asked: “Can anyone not see the blackboard?” to raise my hand. Students with vision problems always got to move forward, glasses or not. Everyone seemed to empathize with the inability to see, but didn’t understand the inability to hear. “Pay attention” or “Listen Up” were standard responses to students who said they didn’t hear a question.

In 1994, on a newspaper assignment, I followed 15 hearing-impaired students around for a day at Long Elementary School in Midland, Texas. The hearing-impaired children often handed teachers small amplifying boxes that the instructors wore with microphones around their necks, and attached to their collars. The equipment amplified the teachers’ voices to the entire classroom.

I experienced nothing short of astonishment. I asked the one teacher if turning up the volume wasn’t too loud for the students with adequate hearing. “No, it’s a little louder than normal, but it makes us sound more authoritative,” she said, laughing. “This is what is known as a ‘teacher voice’.”

My eyes filled with tears as I watched the eager upturned faces of the first graders (wearing hearing aids) as they handed their instructors their microphone boxes and saw their engrossed expressions. At the end of the class, a tiny hearing-impaired youngster (wearing oversized hearing aids connected to a box around his neck) waited for the teacher to remove her amplification equipment, put it into a cloth pouch and hand it to him to take to his next class. The youngster skipped out the door behind his classmates, all smiles. Nobody made a big deal out of his needing something different and he headed off knowing he could hand the amplification box to the next teacher and she would wear it! He wasn’t a problem or a nuisance. He was doing the best he could with what he was born with. Do we really expect more than that?

My singular (but humiliating and frustrating) experience of a certain university (near the Mexican border) trying to turn me away and relegating me to the back of a classroom pales in comparison to what people of color went through in this country who were turned away from most businesses, schools, and jobs that would help them put food on the table, enter restaurants, and voting booths and even to quench their thirst from water fountains.

But anyone who has ever had to struggle for equal treatment in any facet of life has a pretty darn good idea of how important King’s work was. Laws had to be enacted for people with certain skin colors or disabilities to gain access to what everyone else has. Imagine that.

In his quest for equality, King sought to level the playing field for all people by according full American citizenship rights to everyone. But during the ‘60s, it was the African Americans who had the most barriers to remove, including segregation. Practically anyone with dark skin had to struggle to get a good education, eat at a lunch counter or to sit in any seat on a bus.

In 1957, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the goal of securing black voting rights. In 1968, he initiated a “poor people’s campaign” to confront economic problems not addressed by civil rights reforms.

His renown as a nonviolent leader in the midst of violence and confrontations garnered him the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1964) and a federal holiday (in 1986) honoring his birthday January 15.

His struggles for freedom not only secured citizenship rights for African Americans, but have also redefined prevailing conceptions of the nature of civil rights and the role of the government in protecting these rights.

How can anyone diminish the importance of the civil rights movement in truly transforming American democracy? Civil rights legislation also served as a model of advancing the rights of other groups, including women, the elderly and the disabled – as well as any other groups experiencing historical patterns of discrimination.

When it comes to renaming a major street or thoroughfare, there are some considerations, but insisting that Martin Luther King Jr.—and his work in the civil rights movement—are significant for only one segment of society shouldn’t even be in the argument. As I watch the next generation of hearing impaired students skip happily from one class to the next without discrimination, and see students of all skin colors cheering together at campus events (as a teacher now), I have a great hope in my heart that King’s message will prevail. However, a lot of work still needs to be done in the world today. Nonetheless, I am honored to be one of “those people.” But, I hope that we can soon be “all people.”

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2 Responses to “Pardon me, but I am one of ‘those people’”

  1. Dr. Mohamed Zobaa, UTPB on January 16th, 2017 5:30 pm

    Excellent article. I very much enjoyed every word of it. Your story and the way you struggled because of your special needs really touched me. Thank you for sharing this with us. Thank you for reminding all of us about the work of those great people, like Dr. King, who spent/gave their lives for us to have a better life and enjoy what we enjoy now. Thanks Dr. Myra Salcedo.
    Dr. Mohamed Zobaa, UTPB


    adviser Reply:

    Thank you so much for your support and kind words Dr. Zobaa.


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