Jun 29, 2011

Sounding Off (A Wordy Wednesday Post on Being Hearing Impaired)

I am hearing impaired. It's part of who I am. It's not a big deal to me now--I've always been that way, even though I didn't always know that I was hearing impaired.

During college I spent several summers and winter breaks in Miami Beach, Florida working at an ice cream store. In the summer of 1990 the U.S. decided to go to war in the Persian Gulf. News stories ran about soldier shortages, and the media started panics about reinstating the draft. Several news programs ran stories about women in the military. I was 20 at the time, and my imagination took over: what if the draft was reinstated and they decided to require women to register? 20 is prime draft age...  I wondered about it aloud in front of my friend, Mary. She said,
"Jen, you don't need to worry about that. You're deaf! You can't hear a thing I'm saying if your back is turned to me. You have to see me and read my lips to know what I'm saying. The military would never take you." 
Mary's words changed my world...Prior to that, I had no idea that I was hearing impaired.

After Mary's comment I made an appointment with an audiologist, who told me that my hearing loss was severe enough that I could benefit from hearing aids. Thankfully, my parents assisted me on my journey to hearing more (hearing aids are very expensive and are not covered by health insurance.) I got my first pair of hearing aids at age 21.

flickr: Some rights reserved by ikesters 
My first hearing aid experience occurred on the bus ride home from my audiology appointment, and it left me wondering what all the hearing hype was about. Screeching bus brakes are a sound I'd never heard before age 21 (and I can honestly say that it is a sound I could live without!) From that day on, I've made a lot of adjustments. Here are some realizations that occurred after recognizing myself as a person who is hearing impaired.
The pluses:
  • I can choose whether or not to hear certain things. Not every sound is something I want to hear well or hear at all (screeching brakes and police sirens, for example.)
  • While I feel that I can do my job better when I wear my hearing aids, it is nice to take them out at home--especially when my kids are loud. It's nice to turn down their volume by taking my aids out!
  • It is kind of cool being able to lip read! I can secretly spy on conversations occurring across the room, or tell my husband what the coach is saying on the sidelines of televised football game--even when there is no sound.
  • What I lack in hearing, I make up for with other senses. I am very attuned to others' body language and facial expressions. People often don't have to speak in order for me to recognize their feelings.
The minuses:
  • Hearing aids are very expensive. Even the smallest repairs cost more than $100. As a result, when something happens to my aids I can't always afford to fix or replace them.
  • Lots of media is focused on the hearing world and doesn't accommodate those who are hearing impaired.
    • YouTube videos can be captioned easily, but very few people who upload videos take the time to caption them. 
    • There are some amazing podcasts out there, but I often can't hear everything they're saying. Very few podcasts offer transcriptions (1. thank you NPR! and 2. See this helpful site  for tips on how to transcribe your podcasts by using a script or using Dragon Naturally Speaking software.)
    • Netflix recently began captioning some of their streaming content (applause!) but they still have a long way to go. It would be amazing if all videos included captioning!
    • Close-captioning on live broadcasts is often not very accurate. There are lots of misspelled words, typos, mistakes and a great deal of lag--the words come long minutes after the picture.
    • Movies, live performances, speeches, and sermons rarely offer accommodations. When they do, they are bulky headsets that are so uncomfortable they detract from the enjoyment of the event. 
Hearing impairment is a mostly invisible disability, so people don't know you have it unless you tell them.  If someone informs you that they are hearing impaired, here are some tips on how you can communicate with them more effectively:
photo credits: CSAIL
  • Don't assume you need to talk louder unless you are asked to do so.
  • Don't over enunciate or exaggerate your lip movements. Lip readers can read the movements of normal speech, but it is impossible to read someone's lips when they are over-articulating. 
  • Try not to speak to us when our backs our turned. Face-to-face contact is best for verbal communication.
  • Do communicate in writing when possible. Phone calls and face to face meetings are sometimes difficult to follow.
  • Be patient. Those of us who are hearing impaired sometimes miss things. If we know we've missed something we will ask you to repeat it ("what?" "huh?" "Could you please repeat that?") But sometimes we don't even know we missed something! If it looks like someone doesn't hear what you just said, try repeating it.
  • When in doubt, ASK! I think just about anyone with any type of disability would welcome your questions over your assumptions. Don't be afraid to ask! It is more offensive to have someone stare at my hearing aids, holler in my face, or exaggerate their lip movements than it is to have them ask directly about my hearing impairment.


  1. Jen, this is an educational post. I like how you've listed the pros and cons (I kind of like the idea of being able to selectively tune things out!), and have wondered what it would be like to have the skill of being able to read lips. Discovering this so young must have been life-changing for you. Do you know how to sign?

  2. Hi Ezzy, thanks for reading my hearing testament :)  I used to be angry that my doctors didn't realize my hearing loss earlier. I think my life would've been quite different if I'd been able to get hearing aids in elementary school. But without them, I gained so much!  I don't think I'd be able to lip read, be so aware of body language, or be able to communicate as well through writing if I'd been able to hear from a young age.  I am no longer angry--everything happens for a reason.

    I don't know how to sign anything but the alphabet and a few words--Sign is one language I never got around to studying. I have thought about it, though, but I have always worried about being a hearing person entering deaf culture. I don't fit perfectly in either culture--hearing or deaf (sometimes I think my life is a series of "stuck in the middle" stories :)

  3. I admire you, Jen, for being the strong person that you are. Truly, hearing impairment shouldn't be a burden to anyone. What you shared is very empowering, and the tips you imparted will certainly help others become aware in dealing with such condition.

  4. Rebecca--while I appreciate your comment, I am disheartened by the fact that anyone who clicks on your name to learn more about you will be taken to a hearing aid sales website. Your cheap attempt at free advertising shows that maybe you are only so supportive of people with hearing difficulties because you stand to profit from them. That is pretty slimy in my book.


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