The only sound in the lobby of the Renaissance Austin this morning was a faint echo of 1150 people with hearing loss, most of whom had left the day before. It’s difficult to appreciate how noisy that many hard of hearing, deafened, oral deaf, hearing aid users and cochlear implant users can be—unless you spend three or more days with them at the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) annual convention, the world’s largest, most accessible, and noisiest gathering of people with hearing loss.
This year it was in Austin, Texas—home of hot music, cowboy boots and lots and lots of y’alls. In 2002, I opened the Seattle convention as Keynote Speaker, and now, 12 years later, I got to finish it off with a stand-up comedy performance at the closing banquet. I’m proud (and relieved) to say that, in the parlance of comedy, I killed. We all had a blast. I closed with a rap-like piece called “I’m a HoH”. The next day, there were HoH sightings reported all around Austin. In the picture below, I”m asking the audience for permission to allow HLAA Executive Director Anna Gilmore Hall, who is hearing, to be a HoH just for the night.)
Back to the noise thing: To give you an idea of what 1150 people with hearing loss (or, if you prefer, HoHs: hard-of-hearings-and-deaf-peeps) sound like, the best way to describe it is ‘joyful noise’. Lots of laughter, swapping of life stories, people asking each other to ‘repeat’ and ‘speak up’, buzzing about in the exciting exhibit hall trying out new ‘toys’, and listening to keynote speakers and workshop presenters delivering potentially life-changing information. Oh yeah, throw in some music and Texas beer and ‘lahn dancin’’…
So that’s what the annual convention sounds like — but what did it look like?
If you are visualizing a group of grey-haired seniors shuffling, or perhaps being wheeled, toward the next event of the day, please scratch that image! It’s not an accurate picture at all. Our attendees ranged from their teens to Amazing Grace, aged 95 and we had fun! (See the photo at right of Juliette Sterkens, the amazing hearing loop advocate.)
A whopping number of the people who attend are human dynamos; they are leaders in their home towns and states who advocate for better accessibility for people with hearing loss. They help people in their communities who are struggling with communication challenges and who don’t know where to turn for help. There were many new delegates this year who came not knowing what to expect and I guarantee you that they are now, a couple of days later, still reeling from the excitement. They have a new perspective on life, they are more knowledgeable about their hearing loss and, most importantly, they have a stronger sense of self-esteem that had previously buckled under the weight of hearing loss.
This most accessible hearing loss event in the world is a safe place. People can talk about their challenges and tell stories that the people back home don’t want to hear about anymore, or cannot relate to. Once the gates are opened, it can be difficult to stop the torrent of words and emotion that can come flooding out. The unspoken protocol about asking questions to a presenter is that you go to the microphone, state your name and home town, ask your question, and then mumble thank you and sit down. Sometimes though, people grab that chance at the mike to voice their pains, frustrations and fears. In my closing night performance, I gave an affectionate but accurate rendition of such a person at the microphone.
“Yeah hi, my name is Eileen. From Meadville, PA. I have a sensorineural hearing loss that’s bi-…uh…literal…you know, on both sides…they think from birth, but they’re not sure, but I’m pretty sure, because I remember being hard of hearing in Grade 3 and boy, were those kids mean, and HLAA should do something about bullying kids with hearing loss but I survived and I never thought I would get married but I did and it’s been tough being married to a hearing person and why do they always walk way when talking to you…and, pardon? My question? Oh, uh, oh gosh I’ve forgotten it – but I do have a comment… I just want to say that it’s my first time here, and (crying) it’s been, like, amazing, and everyone has been so nice and I’ll never be the same again, and I’ll go back to Meadville and tell people that I’m different…and I just wanted to say hi, from Eileen from PA, and thank you all so much.”
And most of the way through, we’re all going, C’mon Eileen from Meadville, hurry it up and get your freaking question out, and then she hits us hard at the end and we all get misty eyed and start to clap — because we’ve all been there.
“Eileen” may be fictional, but she is an accurate picture of many people attending for the first time. When Eileen comes back next year or in a couple of years, her HLAA Convention experience might be more adventurous. She may go indoor skydiving, for example, like me.
Or, as the hilarious HLAA group from Westchester, NY did a few years ago, she may go para-sailing. Or hot air ballooning. When that same group went to Niagara Falls, they went on the Maid of the Mist boat and realized that their hearing apparatus could get waterlogged and severely damaged. One of the group had a zipped clear plastic bag and they all threw their hearing aids and cochlear implants in the bag. Apparently it was a chaotic, confusing, and hilarious scene when they tried to sort out which hearing aid belonged to whom.
From the wonderful opening Keynote by composer Richard Einhorn to the closing lahn dance, called the H-L-A-Eh?, created for and by people with hearing loss, it was an inspiring sojourn in Austin.
Next year, meet us in St. Louis.
Oh yes – so what do you call a group of HoHs? In Texas, that’s called a HoH-down!