Every now and then I feel self-conscious about my deafness. That is the right word, I cannot hear the majority of pitches or sounds – I am deaf to them. But I am not deaf to everything… I have to have high-powered hearing aids (the big guns, where there are only a limited amount of options for this severity/type of hearing loss) and I read lips. With both of these I might still only get 60% of something if it’s in a small, quiet space, one on one with the speaker. This means socializing, going out, meeting new people – forget it. Luckily, I’m an introvert, because if I was an extrovert I’m sure I would have already gone insane.
When I do meet new people, however, I always worry about how I’ll be perceived. Will they think I’m stupid? Or snobby? Maybe super reserved or just shy? For all of my worries, however, the worst I have had happen is someone thinking these things and not telling me. But then, is it really a loss? No, I don’t think so. And people who are told I’m deaf, they kind of get it or at least they get it enough to understand I’m not being rude or cagey, and I’m not necessarily an airhead. I just can’t hear. But for the first time ever, I ran into a situation where someone actually wanted me to sit there and apologize for my deafness because the sound coming from my hearing aids really put her out.
What follows is a conversation from the best of my tired and shocked memory. What I said, and what I wish I said! And what she said, the person who was so offended by my lack of hearing.
It was the first panel of the day, the second day of the conference (AWP). I was hopeful that today would be better than yesterday. And I was hoping my hearing device would work better – maybe I would actually understand something that was being said. It would certainly be nice. When I arrived, plenty early, I saw that almost all of the seats in the first row were taken up, including both of the “middle seats” that were ideal for my hearing devices. This was a first, but it didn’t deter me and I took a seat next to one of the middle seats, one of the two remaining open seats. I gave the microphone to the speakers so that whatever they said could go into the hearing device I was holding, which helped filter out background noise so that I could hope to understand some of what was being said.
The panel started and almost immediately, a woman in the “middle” seat next to me kept looking in my direction, and her face said it all, “What is that noise?” I know from my husband that some sound leaks from my hearing aids. Imagine someone who is listening to their iPod and you can hear the music through their headphones. It’s basically like that. After three scowls, four glares, and six times of reaching for her things and looking around as if she were about to leave, she finally said something:
Woman Next To Me (WNTM): Excuse me?
Her tone was rude and her face was unpleasant. We were in front, and I couldn’t actually hear her. She was just close enough so I could read her lips, but I did not want to try to have a conversation about her being bothered by my hearing aids. I wasn’t going to move, and there were empty seats she could move to, if it bothered her enough. So, I decided to shut her down with the truth, but in a way where she couldn’t try to argue.
ME: I’m deaf, so I can’t hear anything you say.
Done and done, or so I thought. But the panel was only half over and now this woman was doing nothing but throwing glares and other dirty looks my way. When it was clear I was ignoring her, she kept getting her stuff, looking behind her and twice she started to get up and then stopped and sat down. The entire time, my insides are chanting, “Leave. Leave. Leave. Leave. Leave.” She was being obnoxious and while the previous day I had been timid thanks to anxiety that overloaded everything else, today I was just tired and restless and not ready to put up with any nonsense. I was ready to put nonsense down.
After the panel, she gathered her things. I retrieved my device from the speaker and went to gather mine. Instead of just leaving, I mean the panel was over, she decided that she had to say something to me. Below is out conversation and please note what is in italics are the things I said inwardly that I wish I had the nerve to say outwardly at the time.
WNTM: Do you have a cochlear implant?
Me: No, I’m profoundly deaf. I hear only a small range of pitches, and I have these listening devices that help me filter sound so I can understand what’s being said.
WNTM: Well, I empathize, but it was difficult for me to concentrate on the speakers with the noise.
Why even say that you empathize when it’s obvious that you don’t? What do you want from me? You were in a seat reserved for someone with accessibility issues. If it bothered you so much, why didn’t you move?
Me: I’m sorry.
WNTM: I just wish I had known ahead of time. I would have sat over there. (She waves her arms dramatically to the other side of the room.)
Then why didn’t you move to one of the empty seats over there?[I’m waving my arms like she did.] What do you want me to do – wear a sign? Tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, I have hardcore hearing aids and they might mess with your delicate acoustic sensibilities. So, if you want to move I understand. And no, I will not be moving.”
[I realized after the conversation that I was actually wearing a name tag because of an alumni breakfast right before the panel. To make things easier, I actually wrote “Deaf” above my name, so when people who didn’t know me would approach they wouldn’t think I was a complete bitch or a dumbass. So I actually WAS wearing a sign that day. But whatever.]
Me: If I had known it was a problem, I would have warned you. But I can’t hear or understand anything without using the devices and what you were hearing was sound leaking from my actual hearing aids.
WNTM: I think you should next time. It would be good to warn people.
Warn. Warn? Are you fucking kidding me? How about you stop taking seats reserved for others. If your hearing is so sensitive, why you are sitting directly in front of the podium and microphone?
Me: Okay. Thanks.
Let’s compare schedules so we can make sure I don’t ruin your AWP experience with my need to hear. Ugh.
[And this was the hardest to fight back. And I mostly bit it back so I wouldn’t be tempted to follow her around with my loud-ass hearing aids, interfering with her sitting in seats that were never meant for her in the first place. But I took the high road. It was fucking hard.]
And that was the end of it. But seriously, why did she have to say something? I mean if a blind person is walking with their cane, am I going to stop them and say, “Hey buddy, better keep shouting, ‘Watch out! Watch out! Blind man with a cane coming through!’ So you don’t trip people. I mean others should be able to walk with their faces in their phone – you’re affecting their walking experience.” I mean seriously.
It was so absurd. And it was the first time anyone has had the nerve to try and make me feel bad for being deaf. (Actually scratch that, one person tried to take advantage of me and say I heard him wrong when I didn’t because my husband was present, but he still didn’t act like being deaf was something I was just to piss off everyone else around me.)
So, I guess I should say that I am sorry for being deaf and how my being deaf may affect others. Wait – no I’m really not. I’m the one who has to deal, and I do fine, so everyone else can suck it up or move on. I kind of wish I had a cane that day… but then I probably would have been escorted off the premises. 😛