I was at a meeting not too long ago to plan a strategic action conference for our church. We were going to place everyone in small discussion groups and wanted to mix them up so people could meet with those they may not know well. We had 17 tables in different rooms around the church, including six in one hall and four in another, neither room conducive to easy hearing. We made plans to accommodate those having mobility challenges to get to rooms that were easily accessible and I wanted to make sure we did the same for those with hearing challenges.
To achieve our goal of bringing people together, we planned to hand out cards with the room designations and I wanted to make sure that those in the congregation who cannot hear well would be able to select a room with just one table. I suggested that those handing out the cards check to see if anyone needed extra assistance with this.
One of the committee members balked at this idea. He said he really wouldn’t have time to ask people if they would prefer a quieter room and said they should announce up front that they were deaf.
I said this likely wouldn’t happen unless they knew you were already familiar with their hearing loss. People with hearing loss often tend to keep this hidden from view. The committee member was a bit annoyed at first but then remembered one of his brother’s girlfriends. He had known her for several months before he realized that she was profoundly deaf and was taken aback that she didn’t feel comfortable sharing this with her boyfriend’s family. In my own history, I really didn’t talk about being deaf until I was in my 30’s and remember being quite embarrassed at being ‘called out’ by a co-worker. It was actually the best thing she could have done for me. Now that my colleagues knew (they had surmised but were never certain as my long hair covered my hearing aids), they could make sure I had what I needed to be comfortable in the workplace.
Why is it that we stay quiet about this? We all know that hearing aid manufacturers use the invisibility of the aid as a major selling factor. But why do we want to hide it ourselves? People do know!
I have written about this before, but it does strike me as odd that of so many disabilities, deafness seems to be one of the hardest to reveal about ourselves. Hiding it or trying to hide it does us no favours so why do we do it?
I actually don’t have any definitive answers. Some will say that hearing loss is associated with age and that’s the reason. Well, so is the loss of 20/20 vision, yet we sport stylish glasses and laugh about trying to see the fine print. A television commercial shows a quartet of women of a certain age at a restaurant with one holding the menu out as far as her arms will let it, giving up and asking for the special of the day. We know she can’t read the menu and we laugh with her. What if she couldn’t hear? How would that work? Would she cup her hand around her ear to try to hear the specials of the day, give up and just point to the first thing she sees on the menu? Would we laugh at this scenario or would we feel a bit of pity and then perhaps be uncomfortable with that feeling?
Why is this? One reason I suspect is that there still aren’t a lot of us. The current estimates are that 10% of the population has hearing loss and this percentage is expected to grow as the baby boomers age. Rock musicians experience hearing loss at earlier ages now because the loudness of the music pretty much kills the hairs in the cochlea. The same applies to kids who listen to a lot of loud music. And the damage is permanent. We really need to start to speak up so that others become more comfortable saying they can’t hear.
I suppose when there are more of ‘us’ than ‘them’ we will be more comfortable bringing this topic out in the open. In the meantime, let’s not stay silent. Let’s do some talking ourselves.