“You’re not really deaf– are you?”
I stared at my teammate. We had played volleyball together for many years and she had interpreted for me and another deaf teammate during our huddles. This was the first time she had ever asked me questions about being deaf.
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head.
“But you’re not as deaf as David, right?” (David is my son, who has hearing loss in the profound (very deaf!) range.)
“Actually, our audiograms show that he has better hearing than me,” I explained.
My friend shot me a puzzled look.
“But you have such good speech!”
So I explained a bit more about what I can — and cannot — hear.
I can’t understand a single word spoken over the phone.
I can’t understand a single word broadcasted on the radio.
I explained my speech discrimination scores– the scores that show how well someone can understand speech by auditory means alone. I score a zero in my left ear and a six percent in my right ear, a score obtained by a lucky guess.
Normal hearing borderlines at 25 decibels. The squiggly lines on my audiogram start at 90 and hover around 110 decibels. This is the level that I begin to detect sound without my hearing aids. This means that a sound must be as loud as a jet engine for me to begin to hear it.
The hearing aids help me to hear when someone starts speaking — I can hear the sound of their voice. But to understand what’s being said — I need lipreading, captioning or sign language, because the information coming in my hearing aids makes no sense.
My friend paused and looked at me in silence. “You have some great lipreading skills,” she said. I could see that she was digesting all this information in a new light.
This isn’t the first time that this has happened–it is something that happens frequently. That’s why hearing loss is often referred to as the “invisible disability.” Often people are unaware at the incredible amount of work it takes to gather information and understand communication that goes on around us on a daily basis. And others are often unaware of how much just slides by, because it’s physically impossible to get 100% access to all that goes on around us when the sense of hearing isn’t all there.
At a social gathering in Chicago, I chatted with some fellow writers, most who knew me only through social media but were meeting me for the first time. I think very few of them realized that I was lipreading entire conversations and there were chunks of the evening that I missed. For example, when the hosts got up in front and started talking, there really was no polite way to interrupt the middle of their speech and say, “Hey, can you say that again, I missed what you said?” — so that kind of stuff slides right by. And to the casual onlooker, it probably seems like I’m getting access to the communication because I’m paying attention — there’s nothing to indicate that all of the conversations are sliding right over my head.
At a friend’s wedding, I was meeting an older woman for the first time and I missed something that she said and I asked her to repeat it. “Oh the music is so loud!” she said, and then proceeded to explain again what she said. I still didn’t understand what she said and I explained that I was deaf. She cocked her head to the side a bit, looked at me and said…
“Oh! But you seem so normal!”
Karen Putz is known as The Passion Mentor. She is the author of several books, including “Unwrapping Your Passion, Creating the Life You Truly Want.” To learn more about passion, visit The Passion School.