One billion people use Facebook around the world. Its reach is undisputed and unparalleled, but its impact on one specific community has opened up doors to a new world – for the deaf.
Christina Teani, 34, of South San Francisco is a teacher for special needs students. She understands putting in that extra bit of effort because she was born with what she calls “an invisible disability” – unable to hear without wearing a hearing aid.
“You can often feel like that sometimes you are not good enough, you don’t feel like you’re part of a group,” Teani explained. “Human relationships are all about intimacy, getting to know people, feeling like you belong in a group and if you’re not able to connect, you emotionally feel left out.”
But her life has changed, much like it has for her deaf friend, Sarah McBride of Palo Alto.
“With Facebook, I’m able to communicate with my friends through chat,” she said.
These women say the social media site has opened up a whole new world to them, offering up not only quick chats with friends, but the ability to share memories through pictures and videos – especially satisfying for them because it’s one of the first times they’ve been able to communicate the same way the hearing community does.
So when the opportunity came up to visit the company that made it happen, they didn’t hesitate. Together with friends, they took tour of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park to celebrate the changes they’ve experienced in their lives.
“That’s what I like about Facebook,” Teani said. “We’re all on the same playing field we haven’t had before.”
Kathy Sussman, a teacher to deaf children for more than four decades, said watching her kids struggle with a disconnect to the outside world was frustrating – aggravating, even.
“Because these kids are smart, they have every opportunity, but there was that piece that created a barrier for them. Now those barriers are coming down,” she said.
One of those barriers was the difficulty of expressing even the most basic of emotions.
“Nervous or sad or something. TTY doesn’t show any of the emotional. Now on Facebook, I can put a happy face or a sad face, or a heart shape.”
TTY or tele-typewriter was the device deaf people relied on for decades to communicate with one another. It would flash lights instead of ring. The device features a keyboard with up to 30 characters, display screen and a modem. The user types in the letters which turn into electrical signals; at the other end, those signals turn back into letters that pop up on a display screen, sometimes printing out the message on paper. These women said the process made it difficult to connect deeply with others.
“I find that I am learning things about people that I’ve gone to school with all my life, that I had no idea about,” Teani said.
Many expressed one thing: for them, being deaf is not and was never a handicap, just a different life with a different perspective.
Teani and McBride agree that Facebook has helped marry two worlds they once felt was distant.
It’s enabled a big change witnessed by McBride’s 13-year-old daughter, Samantha.
“She’s deaf so she got isolated and it was hard for everyone to communicate with her,” the teen said about her mother. “I’ve seen her happier because she’s made more friends.”