Speaking of Hearing Loss: Optimism Overcoming Obstacles

The 16-year old boy, wearing two hearing aids and a serious expression, stepped up to the podium.

“Good evening judges, parents, fellow speakers and hearing resource teachers. I would like to talk to you tonight about how my optimism helps me overcome my obstacles.”

I was one of the judges and this was the opening bell of an emotional evening.  Oh, to be young again!  I don’t know who said that, but he or she obviously didn’t grow up with hearing loss.  At 58, I can recall my teen years with crystal-clear vision – especially with respect to my hearing loss – and I wouldn’t go back there for a minute.

The memory of being a hard of hearing teenager was painfully freshened last week.  I had the honor of judging a public speaking contest for Toronto high school deaf and hard of hearing students. The event is part of an annual Optimist Club Communications Contest for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Students, open to youth with a hearing loss of 40 decibels or more.

When I arrived for the evening session, my three fellow judges were looking haggard. That afternoon, they had listened to the speeches of 20 elementary and middle-school kids on this year’s topic, “How My Optimism Helps Me Overcome Obstacles.” Some talks were light on the ‘obstacle’ and others were hazy on the ‘optimism.’ (What 8-year-old talks about optimism?) But all of the children impressed the judges with their words of living with hearing loss and hope for the future, all of them conveying an unspoken social isolation and wanting to be ‘normal.’  But they were all optimistic about winning!

That evening, the gym was packed with the 19 high school contestants, their teachers and families. Nerves must have been running high, because by the time I got there, students had eaten all the cookies and parents had drunk all the coffee, leaving me a glass of water and two carrot sticks as fuel for the optimism-obstacle course.

Speakers were identified only as “A” through “N” to avoid any unintentional bias by the judges if they were, for example, to discover that a contestant’s uncle was an influential politician, or something.

Between “A”’s opening words and “N”’s final “thank you for listening to me tonight,” the students blew me away. A minute into the very first speech, my eyes were filling up and I adopted a goofy, encouraging smile to cover my emotion.

“A” is oral deaf and wears two hearing aids. He talked about his supreme stress at school, trying to keep up and to understand, always worrying about being a failure. His evenings and weekends were filled with homework; he couldn’t sleep at night with the worry. Finally he told his teacher about the nerves and nightmares, and they worked out a plan that lifted the weight from his shoulders. Now, he’s very optimistic that he has overcome his obstacles.

“K” has a smile that can melt butter. She wants to be an actress and she’s optimistic that her hearing loss won’t be an obstacle; in her high school plays, the director builds in visual cues so she won’t miss her entrances. Her mother passed away last fall, but her mom’s  grace throughout her illness has helped “K” deal with her own problems and grief.

“M” has a cochlear implant and is very optimistic he can handle any obstacle in life; in fact he’s absolutely certain about this, because he’s already successful! As a member of his school’s Junior Business club, he is their top salesperson. On his way back to his seat after speaking, “M” shook hands with everyone he passed and I have no doubt that he will grind life’s obstacles beneath his heels.

“F” moved here with his parents and siblings a couple of years ago to escape the violence of his homeland. They have no family here and are lonely sometimes, but grateful for the new start. “F” has a severe hearing loss which made learning a new language very difficult, and some words of his speech required a second attempt. In fact, many students had difficulty saying ‘obstacle’, not an easy word, especially if you can’t hear it.  When “F” paused and tried the word again, he tore my heart out with his quiet dignity.

“L” beamed as she told us about her secret source of optimism – her twin sister. Born four months premature, they were not expected to live. “But we did!” “L” loves her sister more than anything. She helps “L” hear in tough situations and deal with the frustrations of hearing loss. When “L” finished her speech, the twins hugged and sobbed, and I was a teary mess.

There were laughs throughout the speeches, which helped offset the nerves and emotion. Many of the speakers were poised and confident, some were visibly nervous, and others got by on raw guts.  Although I had no part in their achievements, I felt as if they were my children and I was proud of them.

Over the past few years, I’ve met many youth with hearing loss and I am both grateful for and envious of their educational and technical supports that were not available to the teenage me. But I have witnessed that, even today, all the technology in the world cannot completely dispel the emotional impact of hearing loss. When you’re 12, 14 or 17, you don’t want to wear hearing aids or sound different.

But I also see that today’s students, through events such as this, are developing the confidence to self-identify, articulate their needs, and stand up for their rights in a way that my generation could not.

I cannot wait until next year’s Communications Contests – and I want to hear the wee ones, too. But how about a title that’s more fun and easy-to- articulate, like “How I Just Know That I’m Gonna Kick Butt?”

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

16 Comments

  1. That was such an inspiring post as I am more hopeful for the generations of children behind me. Just to show that even though we have hearing loss, it doesn’t prevent us from doing what we really want! I’m glad to see that the children aren’t “NOT” doing things because they think (or are being told) they can’t. I love your writing Gael. It just made me feel like I was there and beaming with pride for these wonderful children!

  2. Thank you Gael for sharing the wonderful stories that we heard that evening. As the mother of one of the contestants I join you in applauding our children for their honesty and their gumption. And yes we need some topic about how they’re going to kick butts as they move through their lives. Your post made me smile.

  3. Hi Gael,

    Some of my students spoke at the contest (I can recognize them here in your article!) and I grew up with progressive hearing loss myself, using hearing aids since the age of four. Thank you for this beautifully written piece; your ‘voice’ here is as clear as it is in person. I’ve seen you speak in the past, and I remember being impressed by your passion and commitment to the topic of hearing loss. Thank you for honouring my students’ struggles by paying tribute to them here, and for sharing your own stories too – I relate :)

    1. Sinead, it would be wonderful to have you join us at the CHHA conference in Ottawa in a couple of weeks.

  4. Gael,
    Your blog is wonderful; they way you share your thoughts really delivers the message.
    It’s encouraging to see hard of hearing teens receiving and giving support with peers and mentors alike. Public speaking success is a major triumph, the gift of confidence, will be theirs forever.
    This program is powerful, a wonderful model for us all to emulate.
    Thank you for sharing!

  5. I had the pleasure of watching/listening to the Deaf Signers & Oral Deaf/HH students here in BC. I am amazed at their optimism as well and the quality of their speeches. This event is so valuable to the students as many came from rural areas and are the only deaf/hh students in their school or even district. The connections they made with the others who have hearing loss will remain with them forever.

  6. Had to pause several times to wipe my eyes but was encouraged knowing there are events such as this giving these young people a voice.

  7. Gael – I can picture those students each sharing their lives as you described, and I get goosebumps. What courage and authenticity they presented! As a former thespian, debater, and dramatic events judge, I am glad that such opportunities are open to all students…for we each have a story to share. Thank you for listening to them.

  8. Thanks for a great blog Gael, that emphasizes the ability and optimism of hard of hearing youth. Here in NL, we’ve been having a public speaking contest for a number of years, however, it’s been open to all students (from selected schools) in this area and we’ve had great participation. This year, however, it will be for hard of hearing students only and we’re really looking forward to seeing/hearing how it turns out. We also started a Hard of Hearing Youth Toastmasters Group this past year and the growth we’ve seen in some of these kids has been amazing. The year-end speech night was very emotional for sure (there were lots of tissues going around). Let’s hope more CHHA Chapters and Branches organize events such as this that will give hard of hearing kids the opportunity to develop new skills and to showcase their amazing abilities. They can be and many are an inspiration to us all in showing how they’ve overcome significant obstacles and how much they enjoy life. By the way, I’ll send you a box of tissues for your next event. LOL!

  9. A wonderful summary of the night Gael. As one of your fellow judges, I was so impressed by the courage and insight that these students shared. They were all so aware of their hearing loss and its impact on their lives, and they used their optimism to deal with and overcome incredible obstacles.
    I felt very privileged to be part of the evening. Their stories were emotional and each one was uplifting and filled with hope. I really believe in the power of supportive peers and the common bond of their hearing loss is empowering.
    Take care Gael

  10. Gail, I love all your articles, but this one really hit close to home. My PhD dissertation was totally focussed on the emotional impact of hearing loss among young adults. Many of their stories echo your observations. Keep on keepin’ on, my friend! <3

  11. Gail, this was an emotional article and I understand why you are an advocate for HOH people. We bothe are years apart in age but have the same desire to help others. I admire you for that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.