The Golden Rule

02/01/2023 01:44 AM By Lisa Anderson
Michelle Ausley with son Zane
Michelle Ausley with son Zane
Story by Cierra Ross • Photo by Joshua Jacobs

The Golden Rule

Adoptive Parents of Deaf Son Welcomed by Community

Michelle Ausley was born on June 10, 1971 in Sarasota, Florida and has spent nearly her entire life here. Little did this Ocala mother know the adventurous life she would embark on—from her journey adopting a child from Korea to her struggles with breast cancer to overcoming her shyness—to provide her son access to the world.

Growing up, Michelle knew she was going to be an elementary school teacher. Learning American Sign Language expanded her horizon but did not alter her goal.

During high school, Michelle took a sign language night class. “I was just fascinated by the language, so I went for fun,” Michelle says. Learning sign language expanded her calling to teach. “I wanted to cultivate a warm, inviting, language-rich learning environment where all students feel valued, supported, and loved.” This passion led Michelle to earn a Deaf Education degree, along with her Elementary Education degree.

When Michelle graduated from college, she prepared to decorate her kindergarten classroom only to be moved to become the Deaf Education kindergarten teacher. The next week, Michelle went from teaching kindergartners numbers to teaching algebra to Deaf high school students. “To be honest, it was terrifying. I can’t do this, but I didn’t have a choice,” Michelle says, noting her initial feelings toward her position. “I felt trained, confident, equipped to teach kindergarten.”

The ground she walked on became unstable, but Michelle focused on her one constant: God. “I went there, again seeking God. I didn’t want my lack of experience to hinder their education. I had to trust He would equip me.”

Michelle began uncertain, but “I ended up loving it and enjoying it.” Though it was not part of her plan, it was better than she could have imagined. “My path has not been what I intended…God’s plans superseded all expectations. Little did I know He was preparing me for Zane.”

International Adoption

Michelle and her husband wanted to adopt a child with special needs, but they had no idea that a deaf child would find his way to them. The Ausley family adopted Zane from Seoul, South Korea when he was 7 months old, but his deafness wasn’t what made him a special needs child. Zane’s birthmarks qualified him as special needs, according to custom in his country. Though the Ausley’s did not understand, they respected the cultural differences.

The situation surrounding Zane’s adoption from Korea possessed unique language challenges that they leaned into their faith for. “They said he was sensitive to sound, but there’s definitely something not fitting together,” Michelle says. “We were excited.”

They didn’t know Zane was deaf when they picked him up, but Michelle suspected his deafness when she met him. “Lots of beeping of the horns and different things, and Zane never turned.” It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the doctors diagnosed him with profound hearing loss.

When they first met him, they did not anticipate he would weigh 27 pounds. Michelle was ready for a small baby and was prepared with preemie diapers only to realize they had to piece the diapers together until they could purchase diapers his size. Early on Michelle learned that “God’s gonna lead us because everything we think is completely different; the path is completely different.”

Michelle’s husband had been exposed to sign language for years, because he volunteered to help in her classroom, as well as being present when her Deaf students visited their home. “He’s been exposed for a long time, but he didn’t become focused until Zane walked through the door,” Michelle states. Many parents who have Deaf children don’t learn sign language to fully communicate with them.
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Embraced by Community

Having a Deaf child requires accommodations to provide them equal access. “Teaching people around us that [Zane] is able to do’s just his ears are broken on the inside. [We] just wanted people to treat him the same as everyone else,” Michelle says. Their home received some modification to ensure it was safe for Zane. They installed lights to flash for the fire alarm and doorbell. They equipped babysitters to sign and set up a system on their TV that provides access to live interpreters whenever Zane wanted to make a phone call.

“The Deaf community has embraced Zane and welcomes us into the community, which is really neat,” Michelle says. “They love you exactly how you are.”

Merging the cultural differences took time, because it was her goal to provide Zane full access. Michelle says they had to “get over ourselves [to] be able to do what was needed, in order to give Zane full access.” Signing in public made them uncomfortable because people would stare, but they fought against their discomfort for Zane’s right to access.

From a mother’s perspective, Michelle states, “First and foremost, remember [Deaf people are] just like you. Treat them as you would anybody else.” She also notes not to exaggerate mouth movements, don’t speak louder, maintain eye contact, and most importantly, speak directly to the Deaf individual and not the interpreter.

Celebration of differences is one thing Michelle wants for Zane. Michelle encourages people to find ways to communicate with Deaf people. Write, use technology, or even pantomime. Language differences should not limit access.
Trip Green, Esq.
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