Hearing Loss Does Not Define Me (Part 1)

By Oscar Segal, President, South Palm Beach County Chapter, HLAA Author’s Note: I felt compelled to write this because of something that happened to me that started me thinking about my self-image; about who I am, and how I possibly am perceived by others.

A group of us were socializing one evening when the conversation turned to a discussion about going to an event of some kind. The person who brought up the issue asked how many people were interested, and then said, “Oscar won’t go because he can’t hear.” Hello! I was sitting not three feet away! Why don’t you ask me? It never occurred to any of them to ask me because, “Hey – he can’t hear!”

So, what does that make me? Is it that, when participating in things that required hearing, I was irrelevant? How am I perceived? More importantly, how do I see myself?

I do not have perfect hearing. Not even close; profound loss in the left ear, total loss in the right ear. From waking in the morning until getting into bed, I depend on aids; a BTE (Behind the Ear) aid on the left side and a BAHA (Bone Anchored Hearing Aid) implant on the right. Without them, I might hear thunder if it was close by and loud enough. With the aids, I’m back in the mainstream of life.

The Invisible Disability Label

To a casual observer, meeting me for the first time, my hearing loss may quite possibly be invisible (unless my hearing aid gives it away). On the other hand, as I mentioned in my note at the beginning, to the person who took it upon himself to decide I would not go because I can’t hear while I sat almost next to him, obviously there were times when I was somehow invisible. So the invisibility factor, as applied to hearing loss, has far greater connotations than the way it’s used as a superficial label to somehow sanitize the malady.

To those of us who suffer that infirmity our loss shows up loud and clear (pardon the pun) the minute we open our eyes in the morning. To us it’s not invisible, but a real obstacle that we are required to negotiate just to make it through the day.

The Handicap Label

Am I a handicapped person? Am I handicapped because I have a hearing problem? One dictionary defines handicap as the condition of being unable to perform as a consequence of physical or mental unfitness. We’re talking about hearing loss here - a physical abnormality. So how does “mental” become a part of the handicap equation? Unfortunately, it’s a big part. Like it or not, it shapes us. For some, it can cause withdrawal from life. Because of the limitations of the physical infirmity, one can feel helpless to overcome it. Again, by definition, hearing loss is a handicap.

But am I truly handicapped? I do not (never did) feel unable nor unfit to perform anything I set my mind to despite the so-called handicap. I will, however, concede to a consequence of my hearing problem – the need to use unique communication skills and ASLDs.

But I’ve never felt handicapped; it never held me back!

Getting through life with the aid of artificial hearing devices is normal for me, and to a degree, levels the playing field as far as I’m concerned. Friends and relatives know they have to be particular about how they communicate with me. Even with the aids, they know there are situations where “extra effort” is needed to ensure that I understand what is going on – both on my part and by whoever is doing the talking.

Unlike those with normal hearing, I need to be always alert to body language, facial expressions, the general mood and focus of the group, and any other small clues that might help me to be in synch with what’s going on at any given moment. Friends and family are accustomed to my special way of communicating; with my being somehow “different.” It’s how I need to live, but it’s not who I am.

Telling It like It Is

I try to be up front with most people I meet for the first time simply to avoid possible discomfort - mostly on their - part because I’m used to rocky communication. If I sense any difficulty in understanding the person, I don’t hesitate to let them know. “I’m hearing impaired. I need to see your face and I may ask you to repeat something to be sure I fully understand. Are you OK with that?” No one has ever made an issue (at least to my face) of being confronted by that kind of introduction. Unfortunately, because of that special effort to communicate, I am quite often perceived, by those I meet for the first time, not as a person with an identity, a unique life story and a resume of accomplishments, but simply as someone with a handicap. So, again, is that who I am?

I remember a quasi-national survey program that took place many years ago where surveyors would knock on a door, and without preamble, ask a simple question of whoever opened the door: “Who are you?”

I don’t remember the real objective of that survey; presumably the answers where supposed to show what people felt about themselves when caught off-guard, without time to think about the question. But one lady’s answer stuck in my mind when I read about it. To the question, “Who are you?” She responded, “Nobody!” That from a lady who gave up a career when she got married; made a home for a husband and three kids, did all the things a typical soccer-mom does, plus volunteering as a teacher’s aid and more; and that’s how she saw herself; As a nobody. Remarkable. And somehow tragic.

So, it’s a matter of perception; how others see us as opposed to how we see ourselves.

I was visiting a neighbor one day whose 8-year old grandson, whom I had never met, had just come for a visit. As I walked in the door, my friend turned to his grandson and said, “Hey, Michael, this is my friend, the deaf man I told you about.” I’m sure my friend didn’t mean any malice – probably just trying to make it easier on me by letting the kid know about my not being quite the same as everyone else should we get into a conversation. Or maybe he was just thoughtless. Oh yes! There’s that. Something we all learn to live with. The boy said nothing, just stared at me as though expecting me to act in some strange “deaf person” manner. To him, I’ll always be that deaf person.

Part Two to be posted soon...