Volta Voices Interview: Up Front on the Back Page Michelle Tang, M.A./Ed.M.


On being an itinerant teacher of the deaf, making the best decision of her life, and responding with “Yes, and…”

Interview by Anna Karkovska McGlew, M.A.

Tell us about your hearing loss and what technology you use/have used to access sound and speech.

I have a severe-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear. I have trouble hearing high-pitched sounds like chirping birds, whistling noises, and the /s/ and /t/ and /sh/phonemes. In my right ear, I have a profound hearing loss. I can’t hear out of that ear at all, but I can feel the vibrations of sound waves if they’re powerful enough. The reason I am deaf/hard of hearing is because I was born three months premature.

To access sound and speech, I use Phonak BiCROS hearing aids. In the past, I’ve used the Phonak Smartlink FM system and whatever models they had before that. When I go to the movie theatre, I use either headsets or Rear Window Captioning devices. When I’m driving, I put my phone on Bluetooth mode. At home, I always have the closed-captioning on when I watch TV. When I want to find out the lyrics to a song, I use “YouTube” so that the audio will play at the same time as the lyrics.  (Before YouTube came along, it was a pain to figure out the lyrics to my favorite songs! I would go online and type something like “Britney Spears lyrics” in the search box and read the words to myself while playing the album on my Discman. I had my cousin handwrite lyrics a few times before I relied on the internet.)

Michelle Tang, left, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York with her friend Liann Ishizuka.
credit: michelle tang

Do you have any memories from attending San Francisco Hearing & Speech (SFH&S)?

At birth, I was diagnosed with no hearing at all. My parents took me to get my hearing retested because my mom saw that I responded to certain sounds. I started at the San Francisco Hearing & Speech Center, an auditory oral school, when I was 11 months old but have no memories from that age. However, I have a few memorable anecdotes from my preschool years at SFH&S. First of all, the teachers there cultivated such a great community that I have fond memories of my time there. They were spirited and knew how to celebrate holidays. For example, I remember one Halloween; one of my teachers dressed up as the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and managed to look really convincing. I arrived at school in my 101 Dalmatians puppy costume, took one look at her and got so confused that I started to cry. I knew it was my teacher, but she was doing such a good job playing the Evil Queen that I started to freak out and didn’t know who I was looking at anymore.
In terms of learning, SFH&S emphasized sing-along songs. It seemed like they had songs for everything from circle time to dismissal. The teacher who dressed up as the Evil Queen introduced me to one of my favorite songs, “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”  I got hooked on “The Wizard of Oz” because of that song and still love it to this day. On a similar note, my kindergarten teacher taught us about dinosaurs around the time “Jurassic Park” was released in theaters; I remember being enthusiastic about T-Rex and Stegosaurus back then because we sang songs about them. In hindsight, my teacher probably linked classroom learning with learning outside of school so that we could make connections. 

Tell us about your experience growing up with hearing loss. Share some vivid childhood memories and experiences that influenced the course of your life.

I’m not going to lie; it was hard. I don’t want to complain about it, but I feel like my hearing loss informed several of my life decisions in ways I didn’t understand until I got older. I know that everyone encounters some kind of struggle (or many challenges, even) throughout the course of their lives, so I don’t want to say that having a hearing loss is a colossal struggle.  

On a family trip in Hawaii. From from left to right: Danny Lam, Choy Ying Fung Fok,Michelle Tang and Nina Tang.
credit: michelle tang

In talking about growing up with a hearing loss, I have to preface my explanations by saying that I’m aware that I have a supportive family and great friends. I was able to attend good schools where I studied hard. Also, I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to travel the world with my family and friends. However, I realized this much later in my life.

When I was a kid, I felt different because of my hearing loss and compared myself to other children who were hearing. Because I felt that most people wouldn’t understand me, I chose my friends carefully and remained aloof unless I felt comfortable being more open. I assumed that most people would get impatient with having to repeat themselves and not want to make the extra effort to socialize with me, so I stuck to one or two close friends throughout my years in school. I have no idea whether or not people were actually impatient. My assumptions played a huge role in how I interacted with my own peer group. I felt like I was on the fringe of social interactions. I rarely got involved in actively making friends until probably high school, after I participated in AG Bell’s Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT) program.

As a result of my hearing loss, I received tutoring from my teachers after school once I entered general education in first grade. When other kids might have been involved with after-school activities, I was doing my homework with my tutor. I remember this one time, at the beginning of first grade, my mom casually asked me if I wanted to participate in the after-school program instead of staying at my grandma’s house while she was at work. Because I felt self-conscious about my hearing aid and FM, I told her I would rather stay with my grandma. At the time, I didn’t know how to talk about my hearing loss and share that part of myself with other people. To cope, I spent time reading books because I believed that words written on pages were more accessible than words spoken by people. There were no barriers in imaginary worlds. 

Tell us how your life changed after being mainstreamed in first grade. Share your experience attending mainstream school with hearing loss. What accommodations did you use/receive? What strategies/tips do you have for students with hearing loss and their parents to succeed in a mainstream school?

SFH&S helped my mom search for schools. Both my teachers and my mom were aware that certain types of schools would not be the right fit for me because of my degree of hearing loss. Back in the early 1990s, many schools did not have acoustic modifications such as carpeted floors or small class sizes. My mom didn’t have a whole lot of choices from which she could choose. My SFH&S teachers guided her through the process, and my mom ended up picking a school that was welcoming and supportive of my hearing loss. The last thing my mom wanted was for me to languish in the back of a large classroom where I couldn’t hear or understand anything. She chose a good school.

However, I don’t cope well with change. It took a long time for me to adjust to my environment. I remember wearing a clunky FM that came with its own pouch that was so big it could have been a harness. Even though the school was small by most people’s standards, it was still bigger than my preschool classes at SFH&S. I didn’t understand why I had to go to a new school, and I was simply not happy about it.

Over time, I adjusted. I made good friends and had great teachers. However, my hearing loss was a major influence on my school experience back then. I didn’t want to be perceived as being less than or different from my classmates. As a result, I concentrated on studying in order to feel like I deserved to be there. My family received financial aid, and I believe the financial aspect of going to school motivated me to work harder to stay there. 

Honestly, I do not have strategies or tips for students with hearing loss and their families. Every student and every family are so different in certain ways that one piece of advice may apply while another may not. Also, my experience may be relatable to some people, but not to others. In my opinion, people generally try to do the best with what they have. If something works for you, great. If not, talk to someone you can trust. However, I will say that families have more options today than they did when I was a kid. Amplification technology is so advanced now! While amplification devices don’t render hearing loss obsolete, it can potentially minimize any communication gaps that might otherwise be bigger.

What was it like to attend a prestigious, large university like University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) with hearing loss? What accommodations did you (or didn’t) have at the time?

Attending UCLA was the best decision I have ever made in my life. Yes, it’s a prestigious and large university, but these are actually the reasons I almost didn’t attend.  It is a big place, and I was afraid that I would fall behind. I remember sitting down with my college counselor, and she plugged in some numbers on her computer based on UCLA’s standards and my academic record. Based off of the calculation, she told me point-blank that I most likely wouldn’t get in but that shouldn’t stop me from applying. I agreed and had no hard feelings because I wasn’t planning to attend a gargantuan university anyway.

When my acceptance letter arrived, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to seriously consider UCLA. It felt like my world opened up. I worked really hard in school in terms of academics and extracurricular activities, and that letter of acceptance gave me the confidence and validations I sought. I knew I would struggle to adjust to the size of the lecture classes at UCLA. I thought I would not probably graduate with any distinctions, but I felt like I owed it to myself to take a risk and experience something different.  

From left to right, Kathleen Hsu, Michelle Tang and Amanda Yang at their UCLA Commencement.
credit: stephanie martinez

That risk, although it was terrifying, paid off. I spent most of my freshman year receiving tutoring and acclimating to the different note-taking accommodations for which I was eligible. UCLA’s Office for Students with Disabilities became my “go-to” administration office! Everyone working there was welcoming, especially the director, Ed. I had not been exposed to the range of accommodations available to me prior to my freshman year, so he took the time to explain the options and let me decide what I wanted. In classes, I sat at the front of my lecture halls and took my own notes. I supplemented my notes with CART or notes from my classmates. I also introduced myself to my professors at the beginning of every quarter, explained that I have a hearing loss and read lips, and asked them to wear the FM.

I also explained my hearing loss to people in my dorms. Some people didn’t really know how to approach me while others were cool with it. Unless current high school seniors are attending colleges with prominent d/Deaf communities, I really recommend that they let people know about their hearing loss during the first meeting. Otherwise, you might run into awkward situations in which people think you’re ignoring them because you couldn’t hear and couldn’t respond to them. In my experience, it’s better to explain that you speechread and might ask people to repeat themselves when you first meet them. Then, you won’t end up feeling guilty for miscommunication that will occur. Like Fat Amy says in the movie “Pitch Perfect” she calls herself Fat Amy “so twig b*****s like you don’t do it behind my back.” Same idea!

Anyway, I got more comfortable with explaining my hearing loss in different situations: dorms, discussion classes and student groups. As I did this more often, school became less daunting and started to feel like a great adventure. I joined different student groups on campus because I wanted to take advantage of what the school has to offer. In my four years, I explored being President of the UCLA Disabled Students Union, a Christian fellowship, dorm life, a sorority, a theatre group, an ethnic cultural student group and studying abroad. Along with my roommates and friends, I immersed myself in UCLA traditions such as Spring Sing and basketball games at Pauley Pavilion, Dance Marathon and football games at the Rose Bowl. Because we were in Westwood, we lived within walking distance to Diddy Riese ice cream sandwiches and movie premieres at a local theater. I learned that college can be as big or small as you want. You can do as much as you feel like doing.

By the time I graduated, I loved UCLA with a passion. I entered the school feeling extremely apprehensive about my future there and my abilities. Four years later, I graduated with a B.A. in English, a minor in Disability Studies and a second minor in Global Studies. Not only that, I received a scholarship for my senior thesis in Disability Studies and had plans to pursue a graduate degree at Columbia University. If someone had asked me in high school, “Is this the future you envisioned yourself having?” I would have said, “Absolutely not! This is all way beyond my expectations.”

Tell us about your study abroad experience.

I entered college knowing that I wanted to study abroad. Personally, I made strategic choices based on my hearing loss.

  • I knew that I expected to have certain accommodations available to me. I thought some countries and programs were more understanding of disabilities and may/may not have certain accommodations if I studied abroad for a few months. I wondered where I would get hearing aid batteries if I ran out and worried about being unable to contact my audiologist if I needed him. Plus, remembering to use an international charger for the FM system was a pain.
  • My foreign language skills were passable, but not exactly proficient. I didn’t want to get frustrated with trying to have a conversation in a foreign language in an unfamiliar country when I already have a hard time paying attention when people speak English.
  • I also knew I had classes to complete for general education requirements, a major and two minors in the course of four years.

Luckily, UCLA offers a program called Travel Study in which students can take two classes in a month in a different city and apply them toward your major and/or minor during the summer. I participated in Travel Study programs for my English major and Global Studies minor. For my first English Travel Study program, I visited London and Stratford-upon-Avon to read Shakespeare’s plays and watch them being performed at The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. We not only analyzed the plot and the language as we read the text, we also discussed costume choices, body language, and blocking after we saw the performances. Prior to arriving in London, I emailed my professors to let them know I was hard of hearing, used an amplification device and speechread. They went a step further and gave me the theater tickets closest to the stage at every show we attended. At a few performances, I was close enough to see more than I bargained for. It worked out!

Why did you decide to become a teacher of the deaf? What attracted you to being an itinerant? What are the rewards, challenges, opportunities?

Becoming a teacher of the deaf happened gradually rather than of my own volition. I attended graduate school for deaf education because I was interested in studying the space between the hearing and d/Deaf worlds. At the time, I was fascinated by the question, “If you’re not part of the hearing world or the d/Deaf world, where do you belong?” Out of this academic quest, I fell into learning about Deaf culture, schools for the d/Deaf, American Sign Language and Cued Speech. These experiences really gave me a broader perspective on deafness and solidified my goal of working with children and families.

I wanted to work with children who are deaf and hard of hearing in general education so that I could support them. At that time, I believed that children in general education face unique struggles as (one of) the only individuals with hearing loss. By using my personal history and professional background, I hope to help younger students who are experiencing similar or related challenges.

The rewards of itinerant teaching are that I have the chance to get to know my students one-on-one and be part of their individual successes. One of the challenges I have faced as an itinerant is knowing that my students sometimes feel self-conscious when I walk into their classrooms. I know how awkward it makes them feel because it once made me feel awkward, too. I try to make it less scary for them by showing them my hearing aid during the initial meeting. That way, they know I’m not there to intentionally make them feel different. I’m there because I want to support them.

Does being a teacher of the deaf with hearing loss help students with hearing loss relate to you? How does your hearing loss influence how you practice as a teacher of the deaf?

In my experience, being a teacher of the deaf with hearing loss helps break down the initial barrier that teachers can face with students they’re meeting for the first time.  Typically, I introduce myself as the teacher who helps with academics and hearing equipment. I also show them my hearing aid, and I find that this quickly makes the students feel less shy. My students don’t know much about my personal experiences because I only have a limited amount of time with them and use that time to work on their goals. My hearing loss influences how I practice as a teacher of the deaf by making the students’ hearing losses a factor of our work together without making it the focal point. In other words, I ask them for their likes and dislikes so that I can try to incorporate them into lessons that address hearing loss and academics.

For example, I worked with a student who was interested in singing and playing instruments. I brought that student a flyer for a performing arts summer camp. My student was so surprised by the gesture that I received an unexpected hug. Many times, my job requires me to ask, “What accommodations do students need? What do they need to improve on to do well in school?” It’s equally important to ask, “Who are my kids as people?”

Tell us about your mentors.

I’ve had some great mentors from the time I was in preschool until graduate school. I’ve kept in touch with some of them. One of my mentors was my teacher of the deaf, Marcy Satzberg, from first grade until eighth grade. She really took the time to show that she cared. She knew of my family members and asked me how my mom, grandma and cousins were doing. When I was having a particularly horrible moment in school, she listened to me, helped me calm down, and communicated with my classroom teachers. I wish I respected her more and appreciated her efforts when I was in school. Now that I’m an adult, I am aware of how much she did for me.

Another teacher of the deaf whom I consider a mentor is Jan Christensen. She introduced me to the concept of advocacy and taught me how to explain my hearing loss to people. Jan began her career as a parent at SFH&S. She later became the director of the program. As a parent, she really helped facilitate a strong program for families because she understood their experiences. This brings me to another mentor—her son Justin. Justin was actually my counselor at LOFT when I was a teenager. His stories as an undergraduate at University of California Berkeley and as a graduate student at Harvard showed me that someone with a hearing loss could be successful. Attending LOFT and meeting people like Ken Levinson, who’s a CPA, and Justin, who’s a teacher, inspired me to create my own goals and take them seriously.

During college, I learned about dedication and commitment from working at No Limits for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children. The director, Michelle Christie, is creative and passionate about finding ways to help children who are deaf and hard of hearing succeed both in the classroom and beyond. She rallies communities together to help families.

Another mentor of mine is my college professor, Helen Deutsch. She is the chair of the UCLA Disability Studies department and a lecturer in the English department. By taking her courses, I learned about disability through the lens of social justice as well as health/medicine. This was empowering for me because it allowed me to reconsider my own experiences from a vantage point of opportunity rather than struggle.

The person who really prepared me for my career on a daily basis was my professor in graduate school, Jennifer Montgomery. She is an itinerant teacher in New York who invites students in the Teachers College d/Deaf Education department to shadow her for their student teaching experience. For three months, I learned how to travel to various schools teaching students who are deaf and hard of hearing by using Cued Speech. This experience prepared me for my current position as an itinerant teacher.

Celebrating Michelle’s 24th birthday at a New York City karaoke bar with friends from Columbia University and UCLA.
credit: jane kim and karaoke duet 35

Tell us about your advocacy efforts. What inspired you to become involved as a counselor for LOFT, for example?

One of the benefits of being an itinerant teacher is that I can advocate on behalf of my students and encourage them to advocate for themselves. I also work with an organization called No Limits for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children. They are a nonprofit group that provides speech and language therapy through original theater productions. In addition to creating their own productions, they offer after-school tutoring and family workshops. Working with them gives me a sense of community and firm belief that individuals with hearing loss can do whatever they set their minds to do.

Programs like No Limits and LOFT are invaluable because they give kids a place to hang out with other teens who are deaf and hard of hearing. Through camaraderie and banter, something changes in them. They feel like they belong because they aren’t referred to as, “So-and-so, who wears a cochlear implant or a hearing aid.” Because of that sense of normalcy and this intangible connection the kids have, they emerge as different people. Ken Levinson and Wendy Will invited me to be a counselor at LOFT, and I’m glad they kept me in mind. Now, I get to see LOFT from both sides as a participant and as a counselor.

What is your advice to tweens and teens in navigating the social scene of middle and high school?

Don’t be afraid to speak up! I grew up really timid and afraid to talk to people about not being able to hear. It was only after I got older, toward the end of middle school, that I got somewhat comfortable with carrying a conversation. Also, I was afraid of asking people to repeat themselves because they got exasperated quickly. There wasn’t as much awareness about hearing loss when I was a kid, so I felt a certain level of confusion and formality from kids and adults, which made me feel self-conscious. Nowadays, some kids have the advantage of technology to help them communicate better. One thing I learned is that it’s okay to express what you thought you heard. For example, it’s okay to let people know that you heard something like, “That’s a great thong” when, in fact, they said, “That’s a great song.” It can be a funny ice-breaker for people who may not know how to approach you due to hearing loss. Even if you embarrass yourself a little, at least you’re being open about what you can hear. 

In improv, there’s a central concept that imbues any scene with creative potential: “Yes, and…”. The idea is that whatever zany plotline or comment gets thrown your way, you respond by accepting it with a “yes,” and transforming the scene with your own words and actions. It keeps the story going. If you respond with a negative, like a “Yes, but…” or a flat-out “No,” you limit the scene by shutting down potential opportunities. Don’t limit your scene. Broaden it. (Just don’t hurt yourself while trying new—and legal—things.)

How has your career choice influenced how you communicate with your loved ones, family, friends, partners, even colleagues?

Now that I’m an educator who works with children, administrators, other teachers and parents, I have learned to appreciate my own teachers and parents more. I realize how much my mom had to go through to help me succeed in school. She didn’t raise me alone, and it’s important that parents know there’s a community out there that’s willing and available to support them. It’s so important for parents, classroom teachers, administrators and teachers of the deaf to work together. I have learned to have more patience because anything can happen, and it’s important to be flexible. My career choice also makes me value my friends more because I learned how lucky I am to have them in my life.

Tell us about your hobbies and favorite pastimes.

Well, I really like to eat! I like getting together with my friends over a meal or a cup of coffee and catching up. Another one of my hobbies is traveling. My mom nurtured the travel bug because she didn’t want me to grow up oblivious to other people’s cultures and ways of doing things.

I also love watching TV and movies with captions. Music soothes and calms me down. Currently, I am learning to play the guitar. When I really need to relax, I do yoga or socialize with friends.

What inspires me? Who are your heroes?

Music inspires me.

My mom is my hero. She’s incredibly strong and able to juggle an inordinate amount of responsibilities. She’s also compassionate and loyal to her family, friends and business clients. My mom has had her own share of challenges, but she has never let them define her life. She keeps me in check when I feel discouraged and reminds me of all the good things we both have in our lives.

Anything else you would like to share?

In my first year of teaching, I had no idea what to expect. I ended the school year having met some of the most incredible students. I had the honor of being invited to a student’s high school graduation. She won a college scholarship that we worked on together. Another student of mine was accepted into a four-year university for engineering. A parent invited me to her daughter’s end-of-school celebration, and my student was so excited to see me that she hugged me three times that day. Her mom gave me a gift card to show her appreciation.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had different parents say, “I hope you’re not leaving the district. I hope you can continue working with my kid.” Things like this make my day because it means that educators of the deaf and hard of hearing, audiologists, and communities produce results. Our individual work matters, and our collaboration can make a huge difference in someone’s life. There are no limits to how much a person with hearing loss can achieve if they receive support, set their own goals, and work to achieve them.

Source: Volta Voices, September/October 2014