When I explain to strangers that I have hearing loss, occasionally, people will respond by saying, “Oh me too. I should probably get that looked at.” This happens with shocking frequency, really because we live in a culture that normalizes untreated hearing loss. Of course, I can relate. I’ve previously written about how I had severe hearing loss for 20 years without anyone really noticing. That’s only part of the story though. I remember several occasions of people noticing in my teens, twenties, and thirties. They just never led to treatment until I met the right stranger.
When I was fourteen, one kid at school noticed that I couldn’t hear him well. Part of this was that this boy mumbled a lot, so I had more trouble hearing him than I did with most people. The other part was that this kid loved to look for ways to make fun of me. Whenever I asked him to repeat himself, he’d start mimicking a deaf accent to me and doing fake sign language. I let myself forget about that kid for a long time, but since having my hearing loss diagnosed a year and a half ago, I think about him a lot. What exactly was he trying to say to me in those cruel moments? Obviously, he wasn’t thinking too carefully about what he was doing; he was just being defensive of his own mumbling habit in the cruelest way possible, using the easiest target (the deaf) who he could think of to bully me. Sometimes I think that he had noticed that I didn’t hear well, and through his bullying, he was sending me the message that I should be embarrassed about it. That’s often what bullying is—an effort to suppress what’s different about other people by encouraging them to hide it.
I definitely didn’t like that he was making fun of deaf people, but I also didn’t associate myself with them. I think that’s why I didn’t understand my hearing loss very well. I didn’t realize that there was anything between profoundly deaf and hearing—at least not for young people, so I thought that there was just something wrong with the way that I thought. In my teen years, I wasn’t hiding my hearing loss so much as trying to correct my mind. In those moments when I couldn’t hear others, I felt like it was my fault, and if they noticed, I’d shrink in shame like a dog shrinks when his owner discovers a puddle left on the floor. As I got older, though, people got kinder, and the people who I had trouble hearing became better at making excuses for me.
When I was twenty four, I was touring the country with a small acting ensemble, putting on plays across the country. I spent every working and non-working moment with my cast mates, often in a van that wouldn’t allow me to face anyone to lip read or better hear their voices. As a result, they noticed my hearing loss often, and they affectionately called me “Granny.” Again, since my diagnosis, my mind returns to that tour van, and I try to figure out exactly what my cast mates and I were doing. Were we just making a joke out of a regular obstacle in our conversations, just like we’d joke about the bad drivers on the road? Why didn’t anyone, including me, ever think, “Hey, maybe she should have her hearing tested,”? Kinder than bullying, affectionate teasing doesn’t make people afraid of being different, but it does give them a way out of acknowledging their own differences. In a way, I think that my tour mates were trying to keep me from being embarrassed. The “Granny” label was a way for us to remind ourselves of my hearing troubles and even work around them without ever talking about them honestly. The fact that “Granny” so clearly did not apply to me at twenty four also helped me distance myself from my hearing loss by playing into a stereotype that it’s an older person’s problem.
In my thirties, I started more regularly telling strangers of my hearing problems. It was often a way of apologizing for myself, and I think that I let myself believe that it was an excuse that I was making up—a lie to make me seem more polite when I was having trouble understanding people. In actuality, those moments of admitting my hearing loss were when I was telling the truth. Once, I was at a play with a friend and snuck into one of the empty front row seats at intermission. An obvious interloper, I told the finely dressed older woman next to me, “I have some trouble hearing, so I’m moving to see their mouths better.” I thought that I was just making up an excuse to take a seat that I didn’t pay for, but she started probing and questioning me:
“How long have you had trouble hearing?”
I was startlingly honest, “Since I was 14. I actually cheated my way through my eighth grade hearing test by acting like I hadn’t been paying enough attention and was spacing out. I did the dumb blonde thing, and they bought it!” I’d never admitted that out loud. Why the heck was I telling a stranger? “Oh, yeah, I was just making an excuse,” I told myself.
She look me straight in the eye and said, “You really need to see a doctor about this. Get your hearing tested. This is very serious!”
After the play, I laughed with my friend about her reaction to me. I’d really fooled her with my “bad hearing” excuse! Deep down her words and expression were etched in my mind though.
About three years later, at thirty four, I felt ready to go to an audiologist. “This is probably nothing,” I said as I entered the booth. When the audiologist opened the booth to tell me that the loss was in both ears, moderately severe in one and severe in the other, I felt myself back in that theatre seat. “This is very serious!” I remembered. Indeed.
I have no idea who that woman was, but I know that I owe her a lot for snapping me out of my denial in a culture that regularly makes excuses for hearing loss instead of urging people to get help. I think that most people are unaware of the degree to which they encourage others to hide their trouble hearing. Children bully while adults are polite, but either way, people with a problem just go without treatment.
Now, when strangers openly tell me that they have hearing loss but haven’t done anything about it, I tell them, “Please get it checked out. It will probably be 20 minutes out of your day and a $35 copay. Just do it for the peace of mind, please. It may be more serious than you realize.” I want other people to start doing this too. If you don’t have hearing loss, you can say, “I’m not a professional, but that sounds serious. Maybe you should go get your hearing checked.” We’re trying to be nice, but in helping someone overlook hearing loss, we’re subtly reinforcing the idea that hearing loss is something to hide. I’m sharing my story to encourage everyone to have the slightly more awkward conversation that acknowledges the possibility of untreated hearing loss. I’ve now learned to be honest instead of ashamed, all thanks to a stranger.