Deaf Agoraphobia

by Tina Blue
October 12, 2002

          Like most people with a severe hearing loss, I often find myself in difficult and sometimes socially awkward situations when I venture too far out into the wide world.

          Because it is usually more of a strain than it seems to be worth, I seldom do anything that involves interacting with more than one, or at the most two, persons at a time.  Okay, that's not entirely true.  My English classes at Kansas University range from 22 to 45 students per section.  But in my own classes, I can ensure that people speak up, face me when they speak, and leave their lips uncovered so I can read them.  In a social situation involving more than one other person, people will inevitably turn to each other and drop their voices, making it impossible for me to follow what is going on.  The more people, the more difficult it is.

          That's why I spend holidays at home alone. 

          But until this weekend I never realized how much my deafness constrains what I feel comfortable doing.

          I was planning to take an Amtrak train next week to La Plata, Missouri.  Then my daughter would arrange for a friend to pick me up and drive me to Kirksville, where she goes to college.  This is her last semester there, and I have never been to the campus, so I wanted to make this visit before it was too late.

          But when I visited the Amtrak website with the intention of figuring out the train schedule and arranging for my ticket, I was appalled at how difficult it is to get necessary information from the site.  It took almost two hours for me even to find out where the Amtrak station is located in the city where I live.  The address is not in the phone book (all they give is an 800 number), and it is very difficult to discover that address on the Amtrak website.

          (I have to wonder whether one reason Amtrak always runs in the red is that it is so difficult for potential passengers to figure out how to use the darned trains.)

          Well, the Lawrence station is unstaffed, so I can't buy a ticket there.  I would have to do it either on the net or by phone.  Not by phone, of course.  I can't hear well enough to perform such a transaction over the phone.

          But I can't do it on the net, either, because there is not enough clear information for me even to be sure that there is train running directly from Lawrence, Kansas, to La Plata, Missouri.  The only route through Lawrence that I could find was one that ran from Chicago to L.A.  I found no route from Lawrence passing through Kansas City, and no route directly from Lawrence to anywhere in Missouri.

          That doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one.  It's just that if there is, I can't find evidence of it on the Amtrak website.  What I need is a human being that I can talk to--not over the phone, but face-to-face, so that I can read lips or even have him write necessary information down if I can't make out what he is saying.

          If I try to purchase my ticket on the net, I might very well end up going someplace other than where I mean to go.  What if I would have to change trains at some point along the way?  I don't hear well enough to understand anything that is said over a P.A. system.  I wouldn't know when to get off of one train, or when to get onto the other.

          I realized this weekend that procedures that seem simple to someone who can hear well are often very difficult for those of us who can't.  Without the option of talking to a live human being, in person, I don't feel that I can make reservations to take a train to La Plata.  I am afraid that I would end up somewhere other than where I meant to go, and I dread the idea of being stranded, especially as deaf as I am.

          I e-mailed my daughter this evening to tell her that I am sorry, but I don't see any way to get to Kirksville next week.  I can't manage the business of making the reservations without the help of a real person on the other side of the transaction.

          Of course, this isn't real agoraphobia, not the classic sort that gets written up in the psychiatric journals.  But it is a sort of agoraphobia nonetheless.  I am afraid of getting too far from home unless I am absolutely certain that I will end up where I mean to be, because I know that if I don't, I will not be able to hear well enough to get home easily.  And I can't be sure of ending up where I want to be, because the only way for me to make train reservations is on the net, and the information there is not complete enough or easy enough to locate for me to feel safe relying on it.

          Because I have arranged my life so that I seldom run up against such frustrations, I have forgotten how hard some things can be for me because of my deafness.  And usually I have someone around who can help me out on those rare occasions when I do run into a situation like this.  But for a variety of reasons, the people that I normally would turn to for help are not available right now, and so if I am to do this at all, I must do it on my own.

          And as much as it pains me to admit it, I don't think I can.

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