Editor’s Welcome: Thanks to the internet, we can connect with interesting and wonderful people whom we might not otherwise meet. This week’s guest blogger is my new friend Kerry Roberts from Newfoundland, Canada. Kerry is a computer programmer/analyst, woodworker, musician and family man. Newfoundlanders are storytellers and Kerry has a powerful tale to share.
I still remember the incident that started a chain of events that ended months later with getting my first hearing aid – a bulky, smartphone-sized contraption with an earpiece that somewhat fit. I was 6 and my mom had given me my first-ever watch. I told her the watch must be broken because it wasn’t ticking. She put the watch to her ear and I remember her saying, “You can’t hear the ticking?”
And so it began.
My name is Kerry Roberts. I was born in 1970 and grew up in Hermitage, a small outport community on the south coast of Newfoundland. My mom also gave me my hearing loss – a sensorineural genetic disability handed down through a line of ancestors living in and around my community and others – Seal Cove, Connaigre Bay and Grole. Most of the families had the surname ‘Loveless’ and our unique condition was dubbed ‘The Loveless Loss’. The defective gene for our condition has since been identified, so there is hope that the disability won’t be passed on to our children’s children.
I can’t say I had a bad childhood. There was always lots of love and support in my family and they tried to help me. However, small isolated communities like the one I lived in are often the most unforgiving of people who are ‘different’. Growing up, I often heard, “Jeez, b’y! Is you deaf!? “If you’se not deaf, then you’se stun!” [Translation: What’s the matter, boy, are you deaf? Because if you’re not deaf, you’re stupid!]
Hitting puberty, my hearing nosedived and situations became increasingly difficult. Newer and more powerful hearing aids helped with the volume, but when people spoke, it sounded like a foreign language. With my fragile sense of self-esteem hanging in the balance, the burden of not being able to communicate well seemed insurmountable. I was angry at the world and I became a trouble maker. Fortunately, I met the girl who became my wife; she helped me focus on getting good grades and to deal with the challenges of a hard of hearing teen.
In university and college, however, a few events helped damage the brittle structure of my confidence – to the breaking point.
In one incident (I won’t say when or where), I’d made a joke in class; the instructor must have been annoyed because he taunted me, saying something I couldn’t understand. Whenever I said “I’m not getting that” or “What”, he mocked me again. I realized what was happening and tried to laugh it off. The other students were looking at me, and when I met their eyes, some were concerned, others looked away – and a few laughed. My smile died and I became so red-faced and embarrassed that my lips quivered. I buried my face in my hands and I could still hear the instructor mocking me. He stopped when he saw the extent of my embarrassment, but the damage was done. I left the room. I was humiliated to my core and after that incident I avoided having attention of any kind focused on me. Remembering the stares of the students, I could not go through that again.
On another occasion, I had an instructor with a thick foreign accent. Most professors willingly wore the mic of my listening system; many even gave me their class notes so I could focus on listening. But this new instructor, when asked to wear the mic, responded with “Hmm, why don’t we see how you do without it for a while and then we’ll see.” I didn’t know what to say and sheepishly replied “OK”, but he was impossible to understand. He must have sensed this, because he suddenly stopped his lecture and asked, “Can you hear me OK?” But his accent was as thick as cold molasses and it was only by his face and body language that I figured out what he was asking. Turning all colors and panicking because the class was suddenly looking at me, I simply said yes. Then he said – and this I could hear – “Well, if you have problems hearing, I will speak loud and you can sit by the chalk board next to me.” A part of me died inside as the class chuckled at his comment. I never went back.
These incidents helped shatter any confidence I had in social settings. I sank into a deep depression and started down the road of anxiety disorders, social phobia, OCD, etc., and within a year I was taking strong medications.
Somehow, I gathered the courage to take a job as a computer programmer where I knew I would have to deal with and talk to people. Sometimes it worked and I got a lot of positive reinforcement from colleagues. Other times, the failure of people to truly understand my communication struggles sent me spiraling into a deep dark hole again. I somehow coped, using strategies that centered on avoiding difficult situations, such as meetings. But the coping came with a price – debilitating anxiety disorders.
The hearing never gets better, although technology improvements make many situations easier than before. My workplace accommodates me with live captioning at every meeting, and I use captioning on TV shows and movies. But when I meet friends and family I haven’t seen in a while – nothing has changed. Most of them fail to understand or recognize my hearing problem; they speak to me as they do to everyone else, which is extremely stressful for me.
On the plus side, I have some wonderful friends who truly get what I’m going through and always do what’s necessary to help me understand. Research is progressing and I have plans to connect soon, for the first time, with other people who have hearing loss. I have my family, my woodworking and my music and – although it’s probably not coming through in this story – I have the ability to laugh.
I also have hope.