Author embraces experience of growing up in deaf culture

Mickey Carolan describes himself as a CODA, short for child of deaf adults. Growing up with two deaf parents, he became fluent in what he describes as one of the “most beautiful” languages in the world, American Sign Language. 

It’s a rich cultural experience that he writes about in his newly released memoir, “Mom Dad Not Hear: 30 Powerful Stories and Lessons about Leadership, Life, and Love from My Deaf Parents.”

It’s the third book for the Grand Rapids business leader, author and public speaker, who is passionate about raising awareness about the Deaf community. He has also written two children’s books inspired by his parents, Sky and Bonnie Carolan. 

The book has received several positive reviews and endorsements. 

“In my book I highlight the nuance between capital D Deaf and lowercase d deaf. Capital D Deaf Is an individual who identifies as part of the Deaf Culture. They've embraced it. That is who they are. They are sign language-first individuals,” explains Carolan. “A lowercase deaf is someone who refers to it as part of a health and medical terminology. They may not necessarily identify as within the Deaf culture.”

Finding place within the culture

His parents identified as a capital D Deaf, so he was immersed in the overall Deaf culture and spent many weekends with parents and younger sister, who like him isn’t deaf, at the Deaf Club in Saginaw, part of the Tri-City Association of the Deaf

“All our weekend-type festivities were centered around socializing. Within that, I was able to become friends with other CODAs. I was able to communicate across the spectrum of deaf adults and children,” Carolan says. 

As a teen, Carolan struggled with his identity as a CODA.

“There are two paths that CODAs will embrace fully,” says Carolan. “The first, they will turn their ability to interpret into a career path and they'll take that all the way through and they become professional interpreters. Another path, which I took, is I got so burnt out from interpreting as a youngster that I stepped away from talking to anyone but my parents for a number of years. One of the regrets is how I handled that during my teenage years.”

He says when talks to his friends who grew up in immigrant families, they have similar experiences that forced them to grow up rapidly. 

“Now, I understand that I was exposed to situations and communication situations that were way above my age level. I was answering the family phone when I was 4 years old, making family doctor's appointments at age 8, and at age 12, I was helping my father negotiate a car purchase.Many people don't have to handle all of those until they're adults,” says Carolan.

Active ally

He writes about the experience in his memoir, explaining that while being his parents’ translator felt like a heavy burden as a child, he has come to appreciate the unique experience he had with one foot in the hearing world and the other in the Deaf world, he says.

Bonnie Carolan holding her son's book about her and saying "I love you" in ASL.

“It’s taken me 40-plus years and the loss of my father to come full circle. That’s part of the reason why I’ve written these books, so I can give back and become an ally for the community,” says Carolan.

As an ally, he’s the longest tenured board member of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, joining the organization as a volunteer in 2015 to bring his business acumen to the nonprofit. The nonprofit serves 27 counties. The main services are to provide in-person interpreter services. 

Deb Atwood, DHHS’s executive director, credits Carolan with making a significant impact with the organization. 

“I have come to appreciate his unique insights on Deaf culture as seen from his perspective as a CODA, and I have come to greatly respect his business acumen, his big-picture vision and his straight-shooter approach to the work we do,” Atwood says. “So it was no surprise when I read his most recent book and found it filled with wonderful insights that weave together his life as a CODA with his life as a husband, father and business leader. His book is one I will return to over and over again, and I know its deep wisdom will stand the test of time.”

As an author and a speaker, Carolan believes he brings a unique perspective.

“I've got the ability to connect the Deaf culture and the business community. I've been able to share what lessons and stories I have from growing up in a Deaf community and how that experience has impacted how I lead,” says Carolan, who has had a 25-year career with UPS and currently is an international area sales manager. He’s also co-owner of his wife’s hairstyling business in downtown Grand Rapids and involved in coaching sports. 

Carolan wants to help people learn to communicate in a respectful way with the Deaf community. He notes that language describing people with disabilities related to hearing continues to change.

“In the very beginning, there were quite a lot of derogatory terms associated with the community, but that has evolved as more people have become educated,” says Carolan. “There are certain nuances and descriptions that fit in the deaf and hard of hearing community.”

Many folks would like to be referred to as deaf or hard of hearing. The term “hearing Impaired” is often regarded as a derogatory term within the community because the community doesn’t see the disability as an impairment. This is who they are.”

He adds that the term “hearing impairment” can be derogatory for the deaf and hard of hearing community and their allies. And he notes it's always best to ask people about the language they want to use when describing their disability. 

“The safest way is to ask someone how they identify, but that's across the spectrum, whether you are talking about deaf and hard of hearing, or how people identify in other ways,” says Carolan.

His family’s story

He wants his two young children to experience the beauty of Deaf culture and the language through immersion. 

He likes his two young children to spend time with their grandmother, when they are learning to communicate with her through sign language.

“They're at an age where they can absorb like a sponge,” he says. “If they want to communicate with their grandmother, they need to figure it out. That's how we're going to do it. We don't do any formal training. They're just going to learn by hanging out with grandma.”

He grew up in Fairgrove, a village of less than 1,000 people 27 miles northeast of Saginaw in Michigan’s  Thumb region.

“My parents were able to navigate the local community pretty well because everybody knew everybody. They really had a sense of who they were and pride about who they were,” Carolan says.

There were times where they felt they lost out on promotions or opportunities because of their disabilities, he remembers.

“The majority of the time, they embraced who they were,” he says. “I was blessed to have two parents that loved me and worked their tails off to provide for us.”

His dad, Sky Carolan, was a printer for 30 years. 

Being a printer was a very popular job for deaf people at that time because the work involved loud noises, which didn’t impact deaf people. Many deaf people worked at a print shop, at newspapers, or anywhere there were loud machines, says Carolan.

His mom, Bonnie Carolan, worked for over 42 years at a hospital as a cook. 

Parents inspired his children’s books

He wrote two children’s books inspired by his parent’s experiences.

His first book, “Sky, the Deaf Home Run Hero: A Lesson in Courage,” was released April 30, 2023, the two-year anniversary of his father’s death. The picture book is part of his Deaf Kids Can series.

The book is about his dad’s passion for baseball as a child. In the book, Young Sky is a boy who has a superpower. His not hearing enables him to focus on the ball and hit home runs with ease. When bullies try to bring him down, baseball gives him the courage to face them and win them over, and with every home run, the bully becomes a friend.

Mickey Carolan with his daughter, Elloree, and his three books.

His second book in the Deaf Kids Can series is  “Bonnie and the Deaf Bake Squad: A Lesson in Confidence.”

This story follows Bonnie as she prepares her show-stopping entry for the Tuscola County Fair. As the competition draws nearer, Bonnie's excitement is tinged with doubts and fears. Will she be able to stand tall against her hearing peers? The pressure seems insurmountable, but that's when the incredible Deaf Bake Squad steps in to lend their unwavering support. As a tight-knit group of talented bakers, they become Bonnie's pillar of strength, reminding her that her abilities know no bounds.

Carolan says the series is aimed at helping deaf children to see themselves in the story and understand how they can make a positive difference. In the United States, there are an estimated 300,000 deaf or hard of hearing school-aged children, according to the National Association of the Deaf.

“I call the books inspired by real-life events,” he says. 

Photos courtesy of Mickey Carolan

This article is a part of the multi-year series 
Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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