CODA

11/01/2022 12:41 AM By Lisa Anderson
Breaking Social Norms
Bill Ross
Bill Ross
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photo by Joshua Jacobs

CODA

A Legacy of Belonging

“Deafness is a difference, not a disability,” says Bill Ross, contributing author of So You Want to Be an Interpreter? An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting and Vice President of Hands Up Communication, an interpretation and translation company that aims to facilitate correspondence between speakers of different languages. “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do except hear.”

Though born with the ability to hear, Bill had the unique experience of being raised in a deaf household. His parents communicated almost exclusively through American Sign Language (ASL) and instilled in him a strong sense of cultural identity. People often assume Bill must favor one group over the other, but he rejects such easy simplifications. “I don’t identify as hearing or deaf: I’m CODA,” Bill states firmly. “I’m not deaf, because my ears work. I’m not hearing enough, because I act like a Deaf person. I belong to the community of Children of Deaf Adults.”

It's Different

Straddling two seemingly opposed cultures hasn’t always been so easy for Bill. “It’s difficult,” he explains. “I think every child wants their parents to be like everyone else’s parents, and having Deaf parents makes your parents different. When you fall down and get hurt, usually you scream and your parents come running. When you have Deaf parents and you fall down and get hurt, you go running to them. Sometimes, you even have to go looking for them.”

Bill realized his family was not like others after he entered grade school. “My parents were going through a divorce, and my mother moved to Arizona. I was in second grade, and the teacher said, ‘You know, you talk funny.’ She thought I belonged in Special Ed.”

The communication issues his teacher flagged were a product of Bill’s upbringing, as Deaf people do not observe the same social norms as hearing people. “It had very little to do with my ability to learn,” he says. “I had grown up being around Deaf people, and it was pretty much all I ever knew. The culture of my parents is different from the culture out in the world. Most people just assume that Deaf people are hearing people that can’t hear, but that’s not true. They’re a cultural and linguistic minority. I grew up with that very embodied in my life. Even today, my children tell me, ‘Dad, hearing people don’t do that,’ and I say, ‘How am I supposed to know this? I grew up with Deaf parents.’”

As a child of Deaf parents, Bill had more responsibilities than the average grade-schooler. “I remember being taken out of school to go to my parents’ appointments and interpreting for them. It’s how I found out my mother had a heart attack.”

Bill was praised early on for his fluency. His father regularly pushed him to be an interpreter—an honored position, considering that though many hearing people may know sign language, only a talented few are singled out to serve the community as an interpreter. “There was a time period, back then, where Deaf people kind of hand chose [hearing] people in the community that signed really well and said this person should become an interpreter.”

“My father would introduce me to his Deaf friends and there would always be a qualifier, so like, ‘This is Billy, my son. He’s hearing, but he signs well.’”

It was during such an encounter that Bill finally found the spark of determination that would later drive him to become an interpreter. “A lady was at our house for a birthday party—my birthday party—and asked where my dad was. I told her that he was downstairs, and she asked if I was Deaf. I said no, and she looked at me and said, ‘You act like a Deaf person.’”

“It was like my whole heart exploded. I felt so different,” Bill recalls. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to become a master of this language.’ I have never worked in an unrelated field. Everything I’ve ever done has been about deafness. I’ve never not done this.”
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A Privilege

Bill is incredibly grateful for the opportunities he’s been given and credits his parents and the wider Deaf community for his success. “One of the things I think about often is that I would not be where I am today without my parents,” he says. “Some people might look at Deaf parents and think what a hardship, but I look at them and think what a privilege. I’m part of a language and a cultural group that is so different from the one I live in every day.”

When asked if he thinks his parents knew the extent to which he appreciated their influence in his life, Bill observes a moment of silence. “No,” he responds softly. “Both of them are gone now, and they will never know how grateful I am. They gave me a place to belong.”

At 58, Bill honors his parents’ legacy through his activism and commitment to diversity. “My passion is for access. I talk about access everywhere I go. Even though our company has a heavy focus on language access, I believe that access is something that everyone needs to be able to experience–”

“I tell people if it’s not inclusive, it’s exclusive. It’s that simple. If you have diversity without access, you have isolation. You can’t be diverse alone.”
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