My guest writer this week is David Drake, the founder and headmaster of the White Oak School in Westfield, Massachusetts, a school serving bright students with dyslexia and related learning disabilities. He lives with his family in Northampton.
by David Drake
I’m pretty sure I come from a line of serial hearing-aid abusers.
My grandfather’s hearing aids were fascinating to me as a young boy. Somehow the electronics fit inside the temples of his thick, black glasses, with a tube extending downward, terminating in a mysterious piece of plastic that I was told was an “ear mold.”
Now, when you’re very young, and you’re already put off by the bristly ears of adults, the term “ear mold” has a disturbing connotation. So I quickly put the glasses down, although I continued to examine them. They looked like a piece of Cold-War spyware, a combination of James Bond and Clark Kent, which were now inexplicably and permanently relegated to my grandfather’s bedside table.
He didn’t use them, of course. He didn’t use any hearing aid terribly well. You had to shout around Grandpa. And Grandma, who had also became deaf. And frankly, you had to shout around Mom, too—his daughter who inherited his deafness when she was in her thirties.
Thanksgivings and Christmases were especially memorable due to this family trait, because in addition to the misunderstandings and the yelling, there was also the crazed soprano accompaniment of the hearing aid feedback whistles. Apparently, no one in my family believed in having their hearing aid sound tubes or ear molds replaced when they cracked, so holiday dinners were accompanied by what sounded like a manic circus steam-calliope, with each hearing aid unexpectedly sending out its own distinct wail and toot. It was John Cage meets Oticon. And unfortunately, none of the musicians could hear, or appreciate, their own symphony.
Against the background of watching these yelling, gesticulating adults, trapped in their multiple feedback loops, I determined then and there never to be deaf. And so I wasn’t, for a while. A long while, actually. But then things changed.
I was 33, a young professional working with disabled children in Los Angeles. I was also several years into passive-denial that I really, really needed hearing aids. Without knowing it, I’d started speechreading, I had to cup my ear in any but the quietest environments, and my colleagues were having to repeat what they said in conversation. And, of course, I had avoided getting hearing aids.
In addition to my regular work, I’d been invited to fly up to a city in northern California to do some pro-bono consulting for a new school that was being opened in the community. The founder of the school was wonderful; earlier in her life she had been the head trauma nurse in the ER of one of the state’s busiest urban hospitals. With that background, she’d seen it all, and at 5’0″ she was one of those energetic, direct, no-nonsense people who could stop a charging elephant with a raised index finger and a steely gaze.
All went well for the first couple of days, a whirlwind of meetings with parents, local foundation boards and so on. But at the end of the third day, and after her seeing how I was—and wasn’t—dealing with my hearing loss, she pulled me aside. “David,” she said, “You think your hearing loss is your disability to endure, right? It’s your cross to bear, right?” It was a pretty direct question, there was no getting around it. Not seeing exactly where she was going with this, I cautiously agreed with what seemed to be obvious.
“Well,” she continued, “let me tell you that the way you handle your hearing loss is affecting everyone around you. You’re making it everyone else’s disability too, because you don’t do anything about it. We can’t whisper to you, you make everyone repeat everything, you misunderstand a lot of things, and basically you’re projecting your disability onto everyone who values your ideas and cares about your opinion.”
You could have heard a pin drop. (That is, if you were able to hear a pin drop. Which, of course, I wasn’t.) But she was right. The hearing loss I privately cursed, but which I didn’t address, was something I was forcing onto everyone in my world. They—my colleagues and friends and family—were the ones being forced to adopt my handicap because I wasn’t taking responsible steps to address my own hearing.
Linda’s advice was direct but wonderful, and it has remained with me.
And I’ve learned this: however much we, as adults with hearing loss, feel marginalized by the fully-hearing world around us, we also have to try to avoid projecting our own disabilities onto those around us. Obviously, we have to enlist the help of friends, family and employers to help us when we need help. But we also shouldn’t expect others to step up to the plate until we’ve done our part. In my case it was a matter of finally getting appropriate hearing aids, and I’ve always appreciated the candid advice from a colleague who understood that straight talk is sometimes the highest form of respect.
Now, years later, I have progressed along the classic route of hearing-aid wearers, from little ITC jobs to—at the moment—big old behind-the-ears (BTEs). I’ve got a great, friendly audiologist, and she, too, has helped me by being candid. Not only are my once-lovely, state-of-the-art BTE’s obsolete but, as she told me recently, the manufacturer isn’t even willing to repair them after this spring. “Wow”, I said to myself, taking a deep breath.
“They really won’t even fix them?”
“Nope, sorry! Time to move on.”
So once again, I’m stepping up to the plate. A new set of beautiful and expensive BTEs have been ordered, complete with a streamer, iPhone software and a second-party microphone. State of the art. Apparently, the two aids will be able to talk to each other (although I wonder what they’re going to say about me). I’m probably the last person in North America with those old plastic sound tubes coming down from the BTE into the ear. But I won’t miss them; it’s time, once again, to do the right thing for everyone around me, and do whatever I can, before I have to turn to someone and say, “What?”