Growing Up in the 'Gray Area' of Hearing Loss

“Sister, I’d like permission to tape record your science and math classes.” She eyed me askance from inside her wimple. I went on to explain that my tutor noticed I was missing some information in my notes because of my hearing loss, and she wanted to know exactly what was being taught so she could help me take better notes.

It had been years since I had Special Education services. It was an innocuous request, but I hated asking for this accommodation. Her facial expression alone made me feel like I was asking for a great imposition. Add that to the extremes of the middle school years where I was hyper-aware of my disability and other people’s interactions and reactions to it, and I felt beyond awkward.

It seemed like forever passed before she answered. In reality it was probably no more than a pregnant pause. Slowly, in the very measured, confident tones of an elder speaking to their charge, she said, “I think if you tried hard enough, you can hear enough.”

Bam! Inside, my middle school brain reacted. If I tried hard enough, I could grow a second ear, too. I hadn’t been in Catholic school that long, having just transferred after seven years of public school, but I knew enough to keep my thoughts to myself. Outwardly, I politely thanked her. I walked away, thinking that if she wasn’t going to try to accommodate me, I wasn’t going to try. So I didn’t.

As an adult, I realized I had wasted the two years I was at that school in part due to the nun’s ignorance and my inability to constructively advocate for myself. That wasn’t the last time I heard that sentiment communicated to me. As a person with unilateral hearing and a hearing aid, my ability to hear changes from each situation and can be compromised by such overlooked things as background noise, lighting or the position of sound. So several people have made comments — sometimes much more sensitively — on my “on again, off again” hearing.

All these years later, this is what I’d like to say to that teacher in response.

1.    I was born with my hearing loss. Luckily, it was identified at birth. I was fitted and trained to use a hearing aid and make the most of my residual hearing for years before coming into your class. I have done and continue to do all I can to “hear enough.” My hearing will never be “perfect.” It will never be “normal.” This is as good as it gets. I need you to meet me halfway to bridge the rest of the gap.

2.    If I didn’t hear it, as far as I am concerned, it didn’t happen. I say this to my husband tongue-in-cheek as a joke when he complains I don’t listen to him. But seriously, ironically I am a very auditory person. In the daily hustle and bustle, even I forget that a glare, a lowering of the voice, a turning of the head or a car horn in the background will compromise my hearing more than it will yours from one minute to the next. I never had two ears but then again, you never had my ear. So if I didn’t hear it, I am not aware there was anything to hear. I try to remember and be aware that people with two ears hear more and differently than I do. I need you to meet me halfway and be aware that I hear less and differently with one ear.

3.    This next thing is not so much about what I should have said, but what I should have done. I should have told someone. Being in middle school, I was very self-involved. I didn’t appreciate the network of people I had in my life who could advocate with me. Had I told my mom or another person who understood or had experience with my disability, they could have passed along their knowledge of my experiences and helped this nun to understand what was beyond the realm of her experiences.

Now I value telling my story and sharing my experiences with both those close to me and strangers. I know now the more people who know my story, the less I am alone. I don’t have to do it alone and I accept that sometimes, it is more effective for others to speak my truth with me, for two voices are stronger than one.

Finally to that nun, a teacher who didn’t know any better all those years ago, I still remember you and that very short and seemingly offhand exchange. I was frustrated for many years, not just from that encounter but from the buildup of many similar encounters where I felt devalued, voiceless and powerless. Now I know my experience is different, but valid. Now I know I can speak up and ask for what I need. I know I am not alone. I hope you and others I meet know that too.

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