I’ve been a member of SayWhatClub for several years and during this time the issue of how to collectively label us has been discussed repeatedly. Do we, as a group, call ourselves Hearing Impaired? Hard-of-Hearing? Or something else entirely different? What exactly fits our unique situation, one where each person’s hearing needs hit across a wide spectrum? I’ve had a progressive hearing loss for about twenty years now. When I first had my hearing tested, I had a moderate loss in one ear and mild in the other. I could get by without ever having to say a word about it since my hair covered my ears and I had great speech discrimination. Some of my coworkers and close friends often forgot I wore hearing aids and I admit, sometimes I did too.
But as I got older my hearing changed.
When I started my hearing loss journey, my audiogram looked like a relatively straight line, see the audiogram below:
My first audiogram from October 11, 1994
I was fitted for a BTE (behind the ear) Resound hearing aid for only my right ear. Since most of my hearing fell inside the speech banana (seen below), my word discrimination was 100% for both ears.
Audiogram showing the “Speech Banana”
All of the sounds from the world’s various languages fall on the audiogram in an area referred to as the speech banana.
Now it looks like a kid’s drawing of a big smile – commonly referred to as a cookie bite loss. Unfortunately, my hearing now falls outside of the area where speech sounds occur, making it difficult to hide the fact that I have a hearing problem.
My cookie bite audiogram from September 20, 2010
Note: The dots are used as a point of reference and show the results of my hearing test from 2009.
My hearing has declined to the point where most of my hearing falls outside of the speech banana. Currently my word discrimination is 66% for my right ear and 28% for my left.
I’ve had plenty of years to come to terms with my hearing loss since it’s been a slow process yet I find myself still struggling with the best way to label myself when it comes to public situations.
So here’s a good scenario. I was recently shopping for back-to-school clothes for my son. This particular store I was in had background music and the acoustics were such it was as if I were in a gym. When a lady flagged me to come to her register I wheeled my cart up to the counter and started unpacking my things. As I set the last of my items down, I glanced up to see the clerk giving me a funny look. You know, that all-too-familiar one that anyone with a hearing loss knows. The “waiting for a response“ look, which is usually followed by the “what is this person’s problem” look.
In that flash of a moment, my mind sifted through several options for a response. Do I go into a lengthy spiel that I now refer to as my “deafologue” — that introduction of why I didn’t hear to begin with followed by what I need in order to hear? The store was packed and there was no time for a long discussion. Instead, I quickly blurted out, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you say something? My hearing aids have a hard time working with all this background noise.”
Several years ago, in this type of situation I would have repeatedly said, “What was that?” over and over ad nauseam. During this phase of my hearing loss I got tired of hearing myself say that as I am sure all of my family and friends did as well. Over time, saying “what?” no longer was an option for me. You can’t ask “what” to something you don’t hear.
I graduated from the “what” stage to the next phase where I acknowledged my loss. In this stage I said some variation of, “I’m sorry, I have a hearing loss and didn’t catch what you were saying.” As soon as the words passed my lips I held my breath, hoping for a patient and understanding response. What I discovered over time was people don’t know how to deal with this gray area. Hearing they can understand. Deaf they can understand. People can grasp absolutes. But what about those of us that can hear something, even if that something can change on a day-to-day basis? Hearing is a complicated process, one that can’t easily be explained to a stranger during a brief exchange. When someone says they are hard of hearing, what does that really mean anyway?
Many times when I’ve told someone, like a store clerk, that I have a hearing loss, they ask me if I read lips. The response I give depends on my mood, but usually I tell them I’m not very good at it. But if I’m feeling talkative, I might even tell them that in order to read their lips I have to stare at their mouth instead of look them in the eyes, and how I need them to not look down, turn away, or cover their mouth when they talk. And did I mention I’m still not very good at it? This will no doubt lead to more questions – ones I don’t – and neither do the people in line behind me – want to take the time to answer. But you can see where I’m going with this… The term hearing-loss stirs up lots of questions – ones I’d prefer to not take the time to explain when all I’m really trying to do is buy my stuff so I can get out of the store and on my merry way, thank you very much.
Do I sound crabby? I don’t mean to. I’m simply trying to demonstrate how difficult it can be to accurately convey your hearing ability, or lack thereof.
What I’ve finally come to realize is that people like to deal in absolutes – black or white. I can’t understand you. I’m functionally deaf. People know that word – deaf. If you want to get your clerk to shut up, just tell them you are deaf. They stop talking cause then they realize you aren’t going to hear them anyway.
As much as our society loves to compartmentalize people, the bottom line is there is no one-size-fits-all way to address us. Each one of us comes into a situation with our own levels of hearing loss and experience in dealing with it. How we address our needs one day may not be the same the very next. So while our needs may be constantly changing and might not be the same from person to person, one thing we can do is cut ourselves some slack. After all, we shouldn’t live by other’s definition of us. We are so much more than that.