In case you didn’t know

Saturday, May 24, 2014

I’m severely deaf. At least, I am according to an official definition I only learned recently, when I found out I could be eligible for a Freedom Pass. (I am.) Before that, I usually described myself with “my hearing’s a bit crap” or the apparently politically incorrect “hearing impaired”, which seems more sensible than “hard of hearing”, but hey. “Severely deaf” sounds a bit awful and extreme, though, and I suppose it is. You can talk to me like a normal person, though.

I’ve hesitated telling people, especially prospective employers, because they never know what to expect. I can usually get away on a superficial level without saying anything, and nobody would know the difference. Some perceptive people do notice when they meet me for the first time – sometimes I pronounce words a bit funny or I unconsciously lipread or I’m obviously struggling more than people normally do in a noisy pub. Or after a first date, when a particularly charming boy commented: “So uh, what’s up with your voice?”

I’ve hesitated writing about it, too, not least because it’s hard to admit it: I’m a girl in my 20s who has a problem usually experienced by the elderly. I also inhabit a grey area between hearing and deaf: I don’t sign, I don’t know any deaf people. I love music a lot. I took piano and clarinet lessons growing up. I went to hearing schools and universities. It wasn’t always easy: imagine being five years old, not hearing well, and trying to make friends. The horror of Chinese whispers. In fact, the horror of whispers. Having to wear crap in your ears when every young girl is already judging everyone else in the class by their tamagotchi or watch or shiny new CD. Oh she can’t hear? LOL!

Technology has improved, I’ve survived, and so have my “coping skills”. I got by OK, in the end: school and university got better and better, and I’m helped by technology, really expensive and amazing technology. I actually stream music right to my ears without headphones via Bluetooth. I imagine the sound quality is actually much better than headphones. And sometimes being able to tune out of noise completely feels like a superpower: I don’t have to listen to that screaming child on the train. But at other times it’s felt desperately lonely not to be able to communicate, to be locked out of conversations because you got lost but everyone else is still following along.

I’m incredibly lucky to have found computers at an optimal time to be interested in technology: my work suits me well, despite the challenges I’ve faced with it. People want to help, but they’re not sure how. It’s hard to give them the answer because I’m affected in situations that pretty much everyone struggles with: noisy pubs, conference calls that are held on an iPad or through tinny laptop speakers, that have multiple people talking on them. I’m also incredibly lucky to have had some great, supportive bosses (as well as a couple of ones who saw my hearing as a hopeless problem that couldn’t be fixed by setting objectives).

I’ve written this because it’s overdue: I’m rubbish at telling people, and it’s something they’d benefit from knowing. Sometimes I come off as rude because I appear not to be listening, but it’s just because listening is sometimes (but not always) an enormous effort, especially when I’m tired. I’ve wondered how this impacted my conversations: I’m very concise and action-focused, and struggle with people who have chat that includes a lot of fluff. It’s extra words I have to listen to and process and cope with. Pubs are sometimes difficult. The risk of not telling people is actually huge. Sometimes people assume I’m boring because I have nothing to say. Or they assume I’m bored of them. Or they think I’m stupid. There’s a limit to the number of times you can ask someone to repeat something.

I love people, though. Talking to people is important to me. Sometimes it’s hard, but that’s life. And it just makes my life easier to let other people know when I find conversation hard, and probably theirs as well.