Being pulled over by the police has always been one of my secret dreads. Not because I’m hard of hearing, or carry illegal stuff in the trunk, but because I don’t want a policeman to be mad at me.
Can’t help it; it’s the way I was raised, to respect the law. Little baby boomers playing in the streets would wave at the policemen driving by. (“Wave, Gael, wave! You never know when you’ll need him to save you!’)
The longterm effect has been the fear that, on being pulled over, I’ll burst into tears if the cop so much as frowns at me. And as my hearing loss deepened, so did my reason to worry. What if I couldn’t understand why I had been pulled over and was getting the officer’s hairy eyeball? The situation is stuffed with potential communication barriers:
- I don’t hear well when I’m nervous.
- When a cop looks through the window, the light is behind his or her head and lips become unreadable.
- A flashlight might be in my eyes, making anything unreadable.
- What if the cop had an accent – thin, angry lips – a lisp?
I’m breaking into a sweat just writing this!
The inevitable happened. I was pulled over in Arp, Texas, of all places. I was with my friend Rose Minette, the Texas government’s hard of hearing specialist, driving towards a rural town to deliver a hearing loss workshop the next day. I was behind the wheel, it was darkish, and oncoming cars were flashing lights at us.
“Rose, do you know where the high beam light switch is?”
“Honey, I don’t even know what that is.”
Blue and red flashing lights suddenly filled my rear view mirrors and I pulled over. A guy wearing the biggest Smokey the Bear hat I’d ever seen approached my window, which I managed to roll down with two clammy hands and a thumping heart. But I wasn’t crying, yet.
“Good evening, ma’am. Y’all have your hah beams on, and people have been flashin’ you.”
“Yes, officer, hi. Uh, we both have hearing loss, so could you shine some of that light on your face, too? And then repeat what you said? Please?”
When he did, he was smiling! So I wasn’t crying!
“Thank you, officer. Now, the thing is, we don’t actually know how to turn off the high beams in this rental car.”
He reached in, fixed it and asked if there was anything else he could do for us, were we OK, did we need directions? A lifetime of cop-worry down the drain – partly because I had told him we were hard of hearing, and partly because I had waved at his kin when I was little.
For similar unplanned police conversations, consider a visor information card that identifies both hearing loss and communication strategies. The key point is to immediately self-identify as being hard of hearing or deaf, because police, like most people, do not immediately recognize us as such, and may misconstrue and mishandle our slowness to answer, our faces of panic and the fumbling with hearing aids. (While many local police departments have received sensitivity sessions, all police and other service organizations should have policies that train staff to recognize the signs of hearing loss and how to communicate effectively.)
Driving with hearing loss poses a few other concerns, not only for the hard of hearing driver, but for her passengers, husband, son, and all other drivers on the road. Consider the un-turned-off turn signal, the unheard ambulance coming out of nowhere, and overly-heard noise inside and outside the car.
The car is my favorite place for listening to music. The acoustics are better in the contained space, and when I’m driving, my good ear is next to the window, which bounces the sound into my waiting pinna. Some cars are noisier than others, such as my current Malibu, which could take a lesson in ‘quiet’ from my former Volvo. Because noise level increases with car speed, try driving slowly to minimize the noise, although it may increase driver irritation in the cars behind you. The high-pitched hiss of rain is also hell on car conversation. At high speeds on the highway, the rain sounds like 25 lbs. of bacon frying, or the loud steam-scream of a cappuccino maker.
Drivers with hearing loss need to be aware that loud music within the car, and loud noise from without, can mask important sounds like a warning honk – or your spouse saying, “Turn left, NOW!” Like most people with hearing loss, I have to be on constant visual alert for problems, and when I do hear a horn, I assume for a heart-stopping moment that the honk is for me.
If the turn signal keeps clicking long after I’ve changed lanes, my passengers quickly point it out. If I’m alone, the car starts screaming at me within a couple of minutes. It has, in fact, a fine selection of alerts, including a “you’re-almost-out-of-gas” signal and one that tells me “your-door’s-ajar-and-you’re-going-to-fall-out“.
Seating arrangements are very important. I always sit in the front; this is non-negotiable. If forced to ride in the back, I am not happy. I don’t buy the excuse that the men are “so tall and need the extra leg room”. Well, hello! I am “so hard of hearing and need to see the lips”.
A single passenger must sit so that I can read lips without straining, and with two or more back-seaters, I pick whose lips I want to read. Ignoring all passengers completely worked especially well with a car full of smelly 10 year-old hockey players. If they’d won the game, they screamed. If they’d lost the game, they screamed – putting my hearing aids into compression. The only thing was that screaming hockey nuts aren’t worth trying to speechread.
I like driving. Traveling out of the city for a few hours, I’m inspired by music and the pleasure of just going somewhere and being alone for a little while. I think about hearing loss, imagine conversations, and create monologues, workshops and blogs in my mind….while keeping one eye on the road and the other on the rear view mirror.