I mentioned recently that society operates on a share basis – if someone shares something about themselves, the expectation is that you’re to share something of yourself in return.
This has been a difficult thing for me to do. I don’t always acknowledge that I have a hearing problem. I don’t say anything at all, unless I’m in a situation where I have to say something; if, for example, I have to remove my hearing aid. So, for hair appointments, I do have to say something. I also wear glasses, so I have to remove those as well, so not only I can’t hear, I am poorly sighted. It takes a huge amount of blind trust to put myself in the care of someone who wields very sharp scissors and tools that burn if pressed against skin! Well, okay maybe not a huge amount of trust, but there’s still vulnerability involved.
In conference settings, such as classrooms, meeting rooms, etc., I try to sit where I’m able to see the speaker. Surprisingly, it’s not always dead centre in front of the speaker, because often there’s a microphone in the way. Sitting just off to the side allows me to scan the room for other speakers. I get away with this without ever revealing my disability. I also get by with context, so even if I can’t hear someone in the back asking a question, I can surmise the question by the answer the speaker is giving. So faking it until you make it applies.
You might think that personal one-on-one interactions would be easy, and for the most part they are. But it can be frustrating. The other person could be so accustomed to me that they forget that I need to be watching them as they speak. It embarrasses me to have to remind them because it forces me to put my disabilty back in the center. So a lot of times I let it go, nodding as if I’ve understood them all along, and hoping that they don’t notice. The more savvy of my friends do call me out on it, as they should. I also need to call them out on it.
With acquantances, and strangers it gets a little tougher. I had a meeting with an MP recently. It was a very frustrating meeting for me, because it was my first time meeting someone for a political lobbying purpose, and I had to wing it as the person who would have been with me, had gone into labour a couple days prior. The MP was late, and was rushed. Which made me feel like I had to rush through. And when I am rushed, I speak too fast, and my speech impediment can be so thick (think thick accent) that it’s not easy to understand me. I could see that she was struggling to understand so she cut short the meeting by offering to take the reading materials and get back to me. I was frustrated because I know I didn’t get my point across. I wasn’t too worried because of the high quality of the reading materials. However, it’s still the frustration I deal with on a day to day basis.
The best and worst encounter I’ve had:
In a store, looking at some watches behind the glass. Trying to ask the salesperson some questions about the watch. I mumbled at first, and realized it, so I was about to repeat myself much clearer, when she angrily snapped at me, “This is Canada. We speak English here. SPEAK ENGLISH.” I looked at her, “I was just clearing my throat,” I told her slowly, enunciating every word, “I was very interested in this watch. I’ll go somewhere else,” and walked out the store.
I cried that day.
Dining out with someone, and missing out on the specials of the day. Requesting the server to repeat for me. My colleagues butting in, trying to tell me; when the server pointed her pen at them, and said, “we’re doing fine here, thank you,” and then proceeded to repeat directly to me so I didn’t miss anything. I gave her a big tip that evening. As for my colleagues – they got it.
I know that I have to advocate for myself, and sometimes I make a judgement call. Is it going to be just a quick interaction? They don’t need to know. Unless they look down or away or cover their mouth. Then I speak up.
Making new friends – do I want to be friends with this person? I wait and see how receptive they are to me. If they’re not put off by my constantly looking at them as they speak, we’re doing okay. If I feel that they’re uncomfortable, I try to put them at ease by explaining that I read lips as I am deaf. What they do with this information often makes or breaks potential friendships. They go three ways: 1) Complete understanding and accommodation. 2) Comprehension and compensation; and 3) Comprehension and awkwardness.
Understanding and accommodation – looking at me directly, figuring out on their own which side is best to sit. In social situations, allowing me to sit first knowing that I often select a seat for a purpose. All without even making a big deal of it. Restaurants – letting me sit with my back to the window because the backlighting of the window makes your face much darker and difficult to read lips. Or sitting on my left knowing that that’s the best side.
Comprehension and compensation – Same as above, but overcompensating in speaking. Speaking at a much slower pace. Exaggeratedly moving mouth. Speaking at a much higher volume.
“It’s not necessary to yell, you know?”
“WAIT A MINUTE. HOW DO YOU KNOW I’M YELLING IF YOU’RE DEAF?”
“Your vocal chords are showing in your throat. You look stressed. And if I’m deaf, it makes no difference your volume.”
Comprehension and awkwardness. This is my least favourite scenario. When I think this person is interesting and I’d like to get to know them more, and reveal my deafness to them, they clam up. Or talk to me as if I’m a toddler. I’m often disappointed because my initial impression about this person has been diminished. Maybe it’s unfair of me to think this, but it’s unfair for them to think that I have low intelligence just because I can’t hear. Deaf. Not dumb. Most definitely not stupid.
The first two, I’m fine with, but the latter, it depends. Sometimes they rebound and become much better at it and we’re friends. Sometimes, we just move on. Sometimes if we run into each other, we’ll small-talk; and I’ll just roll my eyes inwardly if they continue to talk to me in their “Good Girl” voice. The sad thing is, they don’t even know what they’re doing.
And I absolutely avoid people who only seek me out just because I’m deaf. These people are not to be confused with those who seek information about my experiences; these are people who see my deafness as a vulnerability to be exploited.
This is why it can take some time for me to warm up to strangers. I need to be one hundred percent sure that you do not fall in that last category.
I’ve been sharing a lot about myself in this project, sometimes to the point where I’m not even comfortable about it because it means opening up to you, a stranger or even an acquaintance. And it’s pretty frustrating to hear.. silence.
I’m going to ask you to share your experiences. If you’re Deaf or hard of hearing, I’d love to hear about your experiences with interacting with other people. If you’re hearing, I’d love to hear about your interactions with Deaf or hard of hearing.I am interested in the full gamut of experience: positive, negative or ambivalent.
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Today’s phonecam snippets:
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $153 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country.
Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien. L’an dernier, le Conseil a investi 153 millions de dollars pour mettre de l’art dans la vie des Canadiennes et des Canadiens de tout le pays.
Published February 26, 2016