My foot is tapping impatiently as I wait for June and the Hearing Loss Association of America’s annual Convention in Austin, one of America’s top music cities. Makes you want to let rip with a whoo-hoo or hee-haw or whatever it is they yell in Texas when they get excited and feel like singin’ and dancin’!
HLAA’s annual convention draws hundreds of people from around the continent (and beyond) to talk about, hear about, and socialize about hearing loss. And with this year’s unofficial music theme, you just know that there’s going to be a line dance at some point. Everybody loves a line dance, eh?
Except maybe me.
While I’m really good at the hee-hawing, I’m not so good at a dance that keeps me going around in squares, with nothing to look at except people’s butts, although the view does change every time we jump-turn. My sense of rhythm is fine, but I tend to foot-tap or hand-clap on the downbeat, the wrong beat, rather than the upbeat. I haven’t figured out a way to blame this on my hearing loss.
I actually dance quite well, certainly far better than I sing. I come from a long line of music hall entertainers, musicians and preachers, so my inability to carry a tune is a family joke. And this, I do blame on hearing loss. I don’t care how many people out there have both hearing loss and perfect pitch: if I could hear better, I would sing better – I cling to this thought, so don’t anybody try and change my mind.
Line dancing can be hard on self-esteem. People with hearing loss are watchers and copiers by nature because we use visual cues to supplement what we can’t hear. In line dancing, this trait immediately puts us a couple of beats behind – we’re still facing north for a second or two after everyone else has jumped to the west. And hee-haw, just when we finally get into the groove, everybody jump-shifts and we’re facing a whole new set of bums. Then – and this is the worst part – the third turn puts us in the front line, with no one to copy! Everyone is now behind us, watching us fake-dance. So we just smile-kick-and-wiggle, waiting for the next jump which will put us at the back of the line again.
For many people, the annual hearing loss convention or conference is their year’s highlight. Two or more delicious days of interacting with people who are like us. Here, we can be ourselves and not have to justify our communication needs. In that regard, we are positively catered to, with captioning, looping and assistive devices being the standard, not the exception. We are able to understand every workshop, keynote, and words of welcome. How we succeed in individual conversations is up to us, but as this is a safe place with zero shame or stigma attached to our hearing loss, the quality of personal interaction should be about as good as it gets.
That’s if the person you’re talking to is interesting, I mean. No amount of accommodation or accessibility can make up for a dull person. But frankly, I’ve met very few boring people at HLAA conventions. The atmosphere is electric, crammed with interesting peeps, even those who rave on with political views that are on the far side of the moon from mine. But, the main subject is always hearing loss. Non-stop. For three days. Then we go home, tired but exhilarated, inspired and knowledgeable gleaned from the workshops and exhibit hall, a mammoth showroom stuffed with people and products whose prime goal is to make our lives better. (You gotta love that!)
One of the convention’s best parts is the story-telling about life with hearing loss. It’s not just the biographical background data:
“Hi, I’m Mary from Boise, and I got hearing loss in my mid-20’s, no wait, I was closer to 29, and they thought it was just a wax build-up, don’t I wish, but anyway, it got worse, but I cope ok, you know?”
It’s also the stories that didn’t seem funny at the time, especially if they happened to you, but are hilarious when someone else is telling it:
“I asked the hotel for a wakeup call…what was I thinking…but I slept through it, and when I woke up, there were three scared hotel staff standing around my bed. When I hadn’t answered the call, they broke into my room and thought I might be dead, so they pulled my toe and that woke me up…we all jumped a foot in the air!” (These stories are also educational and the moral in this story is to use a shake-awake in hotels.)
Music is an important part of HLAA conventions. When we lose our hearing, we can lose some (or all) of our music, and we grieve for it. A few years ago, at the Nashville convention, 400 HLAA delegates went to the Grand Ole Opry. At the time, I would rather lick paint then spend a night with country music, but I had anywhere else to go. My reward was an amazing night. The acoustics and musicians were brilliant, including Alison Krause’s a capella version of It Is Well With My Soul, but the night was also an historical, ground-breaking event. For the first time in its history, the Grand Ole Opry was captioned. All 400 of us left the Opry stunned with having experienced music in a way that had been lost to us.
This year in Austin, I wonder if the line dancing will be captioned, a tricky feat given that for three-quarters of the dance, we’ll be facing away from the CART screen. Last year, in Portland, the band came down on to the dance floor so we could read their lips. It was awesome and inclusive – except that some of us found we’d been singing Proud Mary wrong for years. (Apparently, we’re not “rowing on the river”, but rolling instead.)
Come dance with us in Austin. It doesn’t matter if you can’t get the beat or if you can’t hear the music or understand the words. What you will get is the camaraderie of jumping and kicking alongside other people with hearing loss, not only in the line dance, but for the entire convention in Austin. And in the unlikely event that you were to trip, there are helping hands everywhere.