by Michele Nealon
(Note: HoH = hard of hearing, person with a hearing impairment)
It was a precarious beginning.
I came into this world with a range of medical issues and it’s presumed that the medications damaged my hearing. The unaided sounds I hear today are the sounds I have always heard – a brass orchestra, the breaking of waves on a shoreline, the rapturous laughter of a friend enjoying conversation.
My response to people’s reactions to my hearing has changed over the years. As a young child, the teasing and ridicule inflicted by my peers led me to remove my hearing aids and engage in solitary pastimes. As a result, I became something of an accomplished pianist and organist and engaging in music has allowed me to communicate without the stresses of verbal conversation.
As a teenager, I learnt the immense value of preparation and of being organised in my studies. I was always a step ahead of my classmates, not revising what had been done that day but reading what would be discussed the next day. I knew that to stay ahead of the pack, I would need to know the terms in use and hopefully pick up a few extra pointers along the way. Some classes and some teachers were more predictable than others. I could lipread some teachers but others had all sorts of challenging speaking habits.
Writing on a chalk board while talking – I can’t lipread the back of your head!
Head down while reading from a book for long passages – I can’t lipread the top of your head!
Beards and moustaches that had never been trimmed – I can’t even find your lips!
Foreign languages – Forget it! I’m having enough trouble learning how to pronounce English words so I don’t sound deaf!
In spite of a few memorable and embarrassing errors, I survived.
And then it was off to the world of work as a HoH. I can’t compete when interviews are conducted over the phone. On more than one occasion I have been offered (and accepted) a job knowing that I did not hear one question from the phone interview accurately, relying on pure guesswork. Other times I have opted out of any job openings that required phone contact in the first instance.
Should I work in Commercial, Not for Profit or Government? My experience tells me it doesn’t make much difference. Each sector is made up of people from the broader community. Some of those people will take the time to ensure their communication with me is effective and we will become friends, friendship built on gratitude and loyalty. Others will decide I’m not worth the time or effort and I will happily walk away without looking back.
As a child, I decided not to wear my hearing aids. As an adult in my 30s, I reversed that decision and these days my hearing aids are accompanied by blue moulds, my constant companions. As a child, I didn’t know what hearing loops or captions were. As an adult, I have learnt that I must request modifications even when I feel vulnerable or am afraid of the attitudes and responses of others. If I want to be included and successful and knowledgeable, then I have to ensure I have access to the information being provided to others. The responsibility for knowing what modifications work best for me in the workplace is mine. No one else will do that work for me. I need to accept that responsibility, do the research, ask questions of professionals, of peers and of technicians and ensure I know what is available.
In the workplace, the layout of the office is all-important. If it’s an open-plan office, I must find a way to be located somewhere where I can have my back to a wall and a line of sight to all people who are walking up to me. I can’t control people’s attitudes and hope that those I work most closely with will have the accepting attitude and patience needed to ensure effective communication. But I can do my part by nurturing relationships with those who demonstrate their willingness to learn about inclusion.
The value of preparation and organisation is as useful at work as it was at school. Stay organised, be proactive, be early, be assertive and risk ridicule. I must identify when there are gaps in my knowledge and ask for that void to be filled in an accessible way.
Still I have things to learn and improve on. I’m working on how to quickly request a change to inaccessible communications in a way that is comfortable for others. I need to increase the number of days when I feel strong enough to advocate for myself and to get a head start by being more assertive in asking for information in advance of meetings or presentations.
I also find benefit in sharing my story with other people with hearing loss. It makes me feel less isolated and hearing their stories gives me examples of how others have traversed the same path that I am now on, perhaps using different approaches to similar situations. As Dr. Brene Brown says: “We share with people who’ve earned the right to hear our story” and I’m heartened by those communications.
Michele Nealon is a researcher and passionate advocate for the inclusion of people who are hearing impaired and communicate orally. She has a Master’s degree in Community Management and hails from the land down under, Sydney, Australia where she enjoys relaxing on the beach, reading and all kinds of musical activities.