Peering into the mirror, I see myself looking back. Monday morning to Sunday evening, every day, there I am. I’ve changed my shirt; maybe I’ve combed my hair differently, or tried a new lipstick shade; but the person remains the same, I still see me.
But what about when the outside world sees me?
Nightfall comes, and I burrow under my warmest blanket, a bowl of ice cream in-hand. I fire up my favorite streaming platform in search of a story to excite the senses. On a whim, I choose a melodrama series from the top ten.
The show focuses on a mother with a secret and a daughter coming-of-age and wading through the ins-and-outs of a new school. The daughter can often be found at the home of her new best friend and next-door-neighbor. Sitting around the dinner table, conversations are loud and enthusiastic, just as with any family you may imagine. Viewers may notice, though, that when the family moves their lips to speak, they also move their hands. The best friend’s father is Deaf, and the family communicates using voice and American Sign Language (ASL) simultaneously.
It is a known detail. They aren’t hiding it behind the wallpaper or sweeping it under the rug. It’s there for anyone to see. It is conveyed as a simple, normal, daily life detail, rather than a driving point for the plot.
Sitting on the sofa, empty ice cream bowl still in-hand, I smile to myself. It is such a brief moment, but I spy, there I am.
Storytelling – be it performance-based or literary – evolves with each turn around the sun. A diverse group of people are being invited to the table or written onto the page. Now you can watch a movie – or two, or three – where the heroine is a young Deaf girl, using her alternative abilities to save the day.
It’s a start. But is it yet enough? Witnessing such representation of those like me, walking through life one foot in front of the other, with a hearing disability makes me feel powerful. Being embraced by those closest to me makes my heart soar. But at the end of the day, I still worry. To the outside world, am I a novelty? At the end of the day, I’m still spent from crawling over hurdles.
How do those who cross paths with me, just in the smallest moments of everyday, view me? Perhaps on the basic level, that comes across as a shallow question. But it equates, at least in-part, to a more global view of those with a disability.
A broken record, I repeat myself often whilst in public. To the cashier at the grocery store I may say, “I’m hard of hearing; sorry, I didn’t catch what you said.” To the barista taking my order: “I’m hard of hearing. Could you please repeat for me what you said?” To the person working the box office at the movie theater: “I’m hard of hearing. Could I please have a closed captioning device to use during my movie?”
These scenarios come with the territory and are second nature to me now. And I don’t mind. How else would they know? My hair covers my hearing aids. I’m still ABC-ing my way through learning ASL and rely predominately on communicating orally and reading lips to fill in the gaps of what I don’t pick up with my hearing aids.
Although by-and-large, they are assuredly well-meaning, most reactions from the other party during such encounters reveals their uncertainty. They freeze and then politely but awkwardly murmur, “Oh, you’re fine!” and proceed to repeat what they said, with no change in tone, volume, or word-usage. Closed captioning devices make for a much more enjoyable movie theater experience, but often come with whispers of, “What is that?” by those who have never seen one before.
The pandemic age has brought on an extra set of challenges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. For those in our community who utilize lip reading as a method of communication, an extra layer of options has been – temporarily, let us hope – stripped away. I’ll often be shopping with my mom and have the “I’m hard of hearing” dialogue with a cashier, and she will sometimes chime in that the masks prevent me from lip reading. The cashier will admit that they never considered that.
Mind you, such encounters are not always devoid of humor. At times, after the conversation has passed, I’ll realize what the other person must have said and that I responded entirely wrong. This could, of course, cause a more serious misunderstanding but, luckily, I can often laugh off the situation as I fan my cheeks.
Or, for example, I was at a café recently with my young niece. From an early age, she has been an advocate. When I take her to the park, she’ll tell kids on the playground to look at me if they talk to me, because my ears don’t work very well, and I read lips. Or she helps me decipher what a cashier said. In the recent instance, I was struggling to hear the barista, and murmured my apologies to him. Then I asked my niece if she knew what he had said. She paused and sized him up, then, with a giggle, said, “No!”
A conversation with multiple people is, especially in a loud setting, like a ping pong match. Despite my best efforts, there are times that I struggle to keep up, and my conversation partners could be plotting world domination, and I would be clueless.
I enjoy walks, but am convinced that I may get whiplash one day, because I am constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure a car isn’t barreling towards me. Speaking to me when my back is turned, or yours is, is akin to speaking to a brick wall.
But just like me, you navigate your world in your own way, and it’s unique to you. My GPS has detours that you wouldn’t find on your map, and vice versa, but our destination is the same.
It’s easy to be caught off-guard when a situation out of the ordinary presents itself and happens to all of us; however, we can make the mindful decision of how we respond. The world is full of people who are different from us, and yet so strikingly similar. You can say, “Yes, this person struggles to hear and I will be mindful to communicate in a way that makes it easier for them. I’ve also gotten to know them a little, and it turns out we had the same major in college, and they also have a fondness for superhero movies!”
Instead of focusing our energy on what makes us different, let’s celebrate the things that make us all human. Together, we can open so many doors and welcome everyone to the table.
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