Oh, Tina, You Are Not Deaf!

by Tina Blue
February 27, 2001          

          Last week a nice young woman, a student in my "Introduction to Poetry" class, came to my office for a conference.  I specify that she is nice, because I don't want you to think there was any malice behind what she said to me.

          As I turned around to pull my glasses out of my backpack, Nicole began to speak.  I said, 'Hold on a minute, Nicole.  I'm deaf--I can't understand what you are saying unless I am facing you so I can read your lips."

          Nicole got this look of amused exasperation on her face and said, "Oh, Tina, you're not deaf!"*

          Just a few months ago I heard the exact same words from a 16-year-old girl that I tutor.  I had been tutoring Jane for almost a year, so it's not as if I were a stranger to her.  But one evening she put her chin in her hand and began speaking to me, with her fingers covering her mouth.

          I reminded her that because of my deafness I had to read her lips to understand what she was saying.  Just as Nicole did last week, last October Jane snorted, "Oh, Tina, you're not deaf!"

          Understand, I am not shy, and being severely hearing impaired does not embarrass me as it does some people who cannot hear.  I do not hide my deafness, and I make sure that anyone I have to interact with knows about it up front.  I also make sure they understand that I won't be meek if they don't make a reasonable effort to accommodate my handicap.

          And yet I often--not once or twice, but often--find myself arguing with people about whether I am really deaf.  They aren't arguing about the precise definition of "deaf"--i.e., whether my hearing impairment is severe enough for me to properly claim to be "deaf" rather than "hard of hearing." 
They are arguing that I am not hearing-impaired at all!

          In fact, one rather unpleasant variation of "Oh, Tina, you're not deaf!" that I frequently hear (one that I suspect carries at least some degree of malice) is, "There's nothing wrong with your hearing.  You hear exactly what you want  to hear!"

          I wonder, do people often say to blind persons, "Oh, you are not blind!"   or, "You see exactly what you want to see!."

          Or do they tell people in wheelchairs, "Oh, come on--you know you can walk when you feel like it!"

          Somehow I doubt it.  Yet we who are hearing-impaired have to prove  that we can't hear.  And no proof seems convincing enough to persuade some people.

          I show people that I am wearing hearing aids--but that doesn't necessarily strike them as evidence of a significant hearing impairment.  I wonder what other reason they think I might have for sticking $1500 worth of electronic equipment in my ears.  Maybe they think I 'm with the CIA.

          I realize that I function unusually well for someone with such a severe hearing impairment, but even so, I spend a fair amount of time asking people to speak up, to  repeat themselves, or to face me so I can read their lips.  I get by better than most people with an equivalent hearing loss, but not so well that my hearing impairment is not obvious.

          Let me tell you how "deaf" I am.

          My left ear hears almost nothing.  (I call it "dead.")  I can pick up a few very loud nearby sounds with it sometimes, but that's all. 

          My right ear hears a little bit more. If someone is within about three to seven feet of me, I can usually, though not always, tell if he is speaking, but I can't tell what direction the sound is coming from (you need two ears to triangulate a position), and I usually can't make out any words.  What I normally hear, when I hear speech at all, is a soft undifferentiated murmur.

          I have frequently developed a reputation for being snooty because I often don't respond when people speak to me.  I learn about that when someone who has been "snubbed" by me exclaims upon learning that I can't hear, "She's deaf?!  I thought she was just too arrogant to bother talking to me!"

          I don't hear sirens on emergency vehicles unless they are right next to my car, and my windows are rolled down.  Instead, I have to watch for people pulling to the side of the road or for flashing lights in my rearview mirror.

          I can't hear a phone ring, unless the ringer is on maximum volume,  I am within three feet of it, and my right ear is turned toward it.

          I can't hear a knock at the door.

          I can't hear a cat scratching at the door, and unless the cat is  up near my right ear, I can't hear it meow.

          I can't hear running water.  (My sinks and my bathtub overflow with alarming frequency!)

          I can't even tell a TV or radio is on unless I am in the same room and it is turned up full blast--and even then I can only tell that it is on, not what is on.

          Without my hearing aids I have about 10% comprehension of speech, if someone is right by me, though I can improve that a bit (to about 30%) with lipreading. 

          With both hearing aids in and turned all the way up, I can understand about 40% of what is said to me--again, if I am within a few feet of the speaker and directly in front of his voicestream.  If I can also read his lips, I can improve that to about 60-70% with most people, depending on how clearly the person speaks and how well he projects his voice.

          A few close friends have learned to project their voices in such a way that I can actually understand them most of the time even without my hearing aids, as long as we are no more than five or six feet apart and I am facing them directly and reading their lips.  They don't shout, mind you.  I cannot tolerate shouting, because like many other hearing-impaired people, I have a low threshold of pain for loud noises, as I explained in my article
"Please Speak Up--Ouch! Not So Loud!"

          Not to brag or anything, but I think I'm pretty darned deaf.

          So why do I have to keep proving  it?

          *It happened again!  Just last Friday (March 29, 2002; the incident that prompted me to write this article occurred over a year ago) another student in another poetry class came up to me after class to ask for help on a poem.  Bobby lowered his head and mumbled a few words.  I said, "You have to look up so I can read your lips.  I'm deaf."

          He responded, "You're not deaf.  I'm just soft-spoken."

          Well, yeah, he is soft-spoken, which makes it all the more necessary for me to read his lips when he speaks.  But considering how often I remind my students that I am deaf, and how often I race from the front to the back of the room, or from one side of the room to the other, to get close enough to understand a student when he speaks, you would think they would believe me when I say I'm deaf.  And besides, who lies about being deaf?  Is deafness something people aspire to so much that they would be willing to pretend deafness, the way some people pretend to have more impressive academic credentials or a more impressive military record than they really do?

          As my friend Randy once told me, people don't believe I am deaf because I don't have any of the symptoms of deafness--except that I can't hear!  After a while, though, you'd think that the fact that I can't hear--not to mention the hearing aids in my ears--would convince people that I really am deaf.
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