In 1998, I joined 20 other people for a speechreading instructor-training program in Calgary. It sounded like fun; I could read lips and I figured I’d be good at it – and as the stay-at-home mom of a 2-year old, it seemed like a golden opportunity to get out of the house each week.
The instructors-in-training, drawn from every Canadian province and territory, included teachers, insurance brokers, social workers and people of no fixed career. The week-long course was intense, jammed with hard work, stories and emotion, as we learned how to deliver effective peer-facilitated communication strategy courses in our home communities.
I came home with a new passion for hearing loss issues and a fire in the belly for sharing this passion with other hard of hearing people. I couldn’t wait to deliver the eight-week “Living with Hearing Loss” program, and within a month, it was scheduled to start, held in an accessible room at my church.
The first session was nerve-wracking, certainly for me, and I imagine for the 10 participants as well – this was uncharted territory. We had nine seniors, the oldest clocking in at 90, and a 30-ish woman who was quickly adopted like a pet kitten in a seniors’ home. Half of the group wore hearing aids and the other half were “considering it”. Most were there of their own free will, although one husband showed up under threat of divorce, accompanied by his wife for moral support. The first person to join had been the minister’s mother, who then roped in a couple of her church lady friends. Regardless of why they were there, I had a diverse and fascinating group to kick off my new career as a speechreading instructor. We had a ball.
In the program, participants must talk and practice with each other; otherwise at the end of the session they would be able to speechread me and no one else. One early assignment was to relate a personal anecdote about hearing loss, and I wasn’t sure how comfortable they would be in sharing stories of emotional pain or frustration.
But the storytellers were astonishing, their stories powerful. This exercise reinforced a belief that has shaped my work as a hearing loss advocate: People like to tell stories and listen to them – it’s how we learn and communicate. Historically, however, people have been muzzled by the stigma of hearing loss, with few role models or access to the stories of people like themselves.
The persistent emotional punch of hearing loss makes it difficult to discuss with family and friends – because it’s those very relationships that are most affected. Connecting with a group of people who really understood was a liberating experience. A hard of hearing woman might refuse to discuss the issue with her husband or children, but in the empathetic environment of a hearing help group, she is able to open up about her disability’s impact on her life. (One of the final sessions of the course is a session that includes family and friends, always a memorable event.)
In this safe environment, tales of embarrassing moments become hilarious stories when told to people who not only understand – and who usually ‘go you one better.’ Dorothy, the Minister’s Mom, was also the first to share a wonderful anecdote, one that I’ve retold many times with her permission. I even used it as a practice exercise for the letter ‘L’ , a very tough speech movement to discern. In fact, here’s Dorothy’s story in speechreading practice-sentence form. (Try it later in front of the mirror, or with a friend.)
Speech Movement: “L”
Did I tell you I lost my hearing aid?
It was terrible!
While I was baking an apple pie for lunch, I put my hearing aid on the kitchen shelf.
My friend Lynn rang the doorbell, so I quickly put the pie in the oven.
When she said hello, I realized I could not hear her.
But the hearing aid was no longer on the ledge!
We looked high and low.
Finally, I looked in the oven and saw a large lump in the pie!
I laughed and said, “Well, I have learned my lesson now!”
In this first speechreading class, I had the honor of having not one but two veterans, both of whom traced their hearing loss to their wartime experiences. Reg was a former RAF fighter pilot who escaped from a plane crash with severe facial burns. The resulting surgery and skin grafts left his face scarred and with a permanent twist to his lips.
Speechreading practice exercises often involve the ‘mouthing’ of words, without voice or with very low voice. When Reg ‘mouthed’, it was challenging for people to understand him, especially my beginners. We encouraged Reg to use his voice – with its beautifully articulated English accent – and he provided the others with a unique opportunity for practice. Reg also became my best student, which is unusual for a man. (Sorry, guys, but statistics and experience show that men do not usually speechread as well as women.)
Tom was a gorgeous, blue-eyed 84-year old who had all us girls sighing over him. In WWII, he was in the motorcycle corps attached to a tank division; his job was to reconnoiter and make sure the path was clear for the oncoming tanks.
“The noise was phenomenal,” said Tom. “The constant noise, rumbling, and roaring, caused lifelong hearing loss and tinnitus.”
He did get an unexpected opportunity for some silence. The food was bad and the men were furious that the officers enjoyed better daily fare. On one particularly bad-food day, Tom walked into the officer’s tent and slammed down his slop. “Would you eat this s—t?” he demanded. This earned him a relatively quiet jail stint. 50 years later, he was out of jail and having fun in speechreading class.
Speechreading courses also promote assertiveness skills and practical communication strategies, but the biggest benefit, the most lasting impact, comes from the connection made with other hard of hearing people. The bonds created may not extend socially after the course’s finish, but the knowledge that we are not alone is an essential ingredient in living well with our hearing loss.
If you have an opportunity to join a small speechreading group, take it. It’s more fun than army jail and it may get your nagging family off your back.