Deaf People Are So Annoying

by Tina Blue
July 8, 2000

          I have a significant hearing loss. I usually simply say that I am deaf, because the subtleties involved in the degree of deafness are usually difficult for those with normal hearing to appreciate. Besides, if I say I'm deaf, people are a little more likely to attempt to help me understand what they say. Not a lot--but some.

          The fact is, I hear at least some of the same sounds you do, though most of them are muted for me. Some sounds I can hear out of one ear, but not out of the other. Some sounds I just don't hear at all. For example, I can hear a phone ring if my right ear is turned in that direction, and if I am no more than a few feet away. But if my left ear is turned toward the phone, I won't hear it at all, even if I am fairly close to it. I can't hear a knock on my door, though I will hear a pounding. A beeping alarm clock is useless to me. That sound is outside the range of my hearing. And since one of my ears hardly works at all, I usually can't tell what direction a sound is coming from.

          Unfortunately, some of the sounds that are outside my range are those that enable us to distinguish the consonants in speech. Thus, even though I usually, though not always, can tell when someone is speaking, I often hear only a stream of gibberish.

          I've been hard of hearing my whole life, but the condition that causes my hearing loss, Meniere's disease, is progressive, so I get deafer and deafer as time goes by. (Meniere's disease also causes infrequent but entirely debilitating bouts of dizziness. Fortunately, my occasional attacks of vertigo have not taken place in public--though I worry constantly that they might.)
          Unlike many people with hearing loss (my mother, my grandmother, and my sister come to mind), I have not withdrawn into myself--at least not too very much. I have always worked incredibly hard to understand what people are saying. So much so, that one friend told me that is the reason why no one tries to speak up or otherwise help me understand them: "Except for the fact that you can't hear, Tina, you have none of the symptoms of deafness." (Not hearing is a big one, though, I'd say!)

          In fact, it usually takes a dramatic incident to convince people of my deafness. Once a friend who was visiting me at my home asked me if I was going to get the telephone. I responded in surprise, "Is it ringing?" I happened to be no more than three feet away from it, but my right ear was turned in the wrong direction! From that moment on, I never had to ask him to speak up for me. At last he understood how little I really heard.

          Perhaps if I were more obviously deaf, people would treat my handicap more kindly--but I doubt it. Most people treat the hard of hearing as if we are stupid. Sure, we often seem clueless, but only if you are unwilling to let us know that something important is going on, so that we can pay attention in whatever way we have devised to compensate for our difficulty in understanding what you say.

     Frankly, I am convinced that my deafness has made me smarter. From an early age, I have had to pay very close attention to what is going on around me, and I have had to piece together a myriad of subtle clues to understand much of anything that hearing people take for granted. My success is evidenced by the fact that no one knows of my deafness unless I tell them, and even then hardly anyone really believes that I can't understand what they are saying.

          If I were blind or in a wheelchair, a lot of people would make some attempt to accommodate my disability. But most people just find it annoying to have to speak up or repeat themselves for someone who can't hear well enough to understand them. Most people also feel that it's more trouble than it's worth to let me know when they are about to say something, so that I can try very hard to follow them. Would it be so hard, I wonder, for them to actually face me so that I can read their lips? Unfortunately, the most common response I get when I say, "I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that," is "Never mind."

          I have many good friends. All of them find my company enjoyable enough to make it worth their while to speak up and face me so that I can read their lips and follow what they are saying. But even these thoughtful friends find it hard to understand why I won't socialize much with them in groups. The fact is, I can follow only one person at a time. When more people are involved, they tend to speak toward each other, or to speak too quickly or too softly for me to understand them. That's why I never accept invitations to parties.

          I teach college-level English classes. You don't want to know how hard it is to get self-absorbed adolescents to help a deaf person understand what they are saying. My solution is to select a translator--someone thoughtful enough to want to help, and with a voice that I can hear. That's right--some people are naturally easier to hear than others.

     No one needs to shout for me. In fact, no one even needs to speak all that loudly. All people have to do is face me directly and speak clearly, without swallowing their words, covering their mouths, or mumbling. Actually, I think mere politeness would dictate those behaviors, even when one's interlocutor has perfectly normal hearing. Yet an awful lot of people are just plain annoyed that so much should be expected of them in a conversation.

          I have a strong sense of self. I assert my right to hear what's going on, and I don't feel embarrassed about naming my handicap and asking people to help me understand what they are saying. But even I find it exhausting and discouraging to deal with the attitude that many people with normal hearing have toward those of us who are not so blessed. A lot of people think our problem is just that we don't want to pay attention. In fact, we often are told that we hear exactly what we want to hear, as if our hearing loss is a ruse to have things our own way.

          I do have one consolation. Advancing age, coupled with the effects of listening to excessively loud music, will eventually damage the hearing of a lot of the same people who are most intolerant of those of us who don't hear well. When that happens, we will have the advantage, since we've been coping with our hearing loss for so long. Probably we will be fairly tolerant of the newer members of our group.

       At least they'd better hope so.
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