By Pearl Feder, L.C.S.W.
As the sun goes down and the evening enters my bedroom, I whip my hearing aid off and breathe a sigh of relief. I begin to relax. I enjoy the sound of my tinnitus (yep, you read that correctly), without the words coming at me from all directions.
I haven’t always been deaf. I heard stereo music with headphones until I was 19 years old, at which time I lost all speech discrimination in my left ear as a result of being hit by a car, three months after having a Stapedectomy. My right ear slowly deteriorated over the years, and I was not happy with hearing aid technology at the time. So, I did not begin wearing a hearing aid until I was 42 years old. Did I believe I was missing out on conversations? Did I occasionally yes people to death? Did I smile and act like I knew what was happening? The answers are yes and no. I became very good at “reading” people and getting the gist of the conversation. My gut instincts became strong.
I was never disturbed by my hearing loss, even though I grew up in a home that was not supportive of my “disability.” Sitting in elementary school, my teachers labeled me “lazy” and “dumb,” because I appeared indifferent and because I appeared to not understand what was being said. Remember, this was the early 1960’s. I never had good feelings toward school, in fact, I hated anything academic. My hearing loss was not discovered until I attended Public School in 6th grade, where I was given a hearing screening. That hearing screening was the beginning of my rebellion against everything and the end of my allowing people to see me as dumb and lazy. It was the motivation for returning to the academics when I attended college with a different attitude.
I attended NYU School of Social Work where I received my Bachelors and Masters in Social Work. I worked for Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, Long Island where I learned English Sign Language and finger spelling in order to work with deaf/blind adults. During my pregnancy years, I was employed as an activities director for a deaf and hearing impaired senior center. Lexington School for the Deaf was my next stop, where I worked and learned ASL in order to counsel Deaf/deaf High School Students. My last stop in employment was the NYC Department of Education where I worked with the Hard of Hearing / Visually Impaired Office.
My biggest disappointment was with the hearing people I came across. They had misconceptions of hearing loss, hearing technology, closed captioning and basically believing that hearing loss is an issue that concerns only elderly people. My frustration with the Public and Private school systems grew rapidly. Teachers totally did not understand hearing loss or how to recognize it. I found that schools were inconsistent in providing screenings to young students in the classroom. I found parents and Pediatricians negligent in providing and recommending hearing evaluations. In my desire to educate people about hearing loss, I found resistance all around me. I decided I needed to provide staff developments and training to help sensitize them in recognizing hearing loss in children. I organized this on my own free time as the school system was too caught up with compliancy issues of caseloads to provide this service to their teachers. In my later years with the educational system, I was considered a consultant for all things hearing loss and deafness related, for those staff and parents who reached out to me or were told to contact me.
There was one point in my life when I was told I would lose all my hearing, that I would lose all speech discrimination. Devastating at first, but not in the end. My close friends decided they needed to take a sign language class because they wanted to be certain they would be able to communicate when the time came. Though I never lost all my hearing to the point of using alternative means of communicating, the pure fact that my friends were willing to do this for me, was so heartwarming and overwhelming. Good friends are hard to come by and I have been very lucky to have them in my life.
My frustration in life has not been with my lack of hearing but with people who believe if they yell and or open their mouth up wide enough, I will hear them better. I’m frustrated with the person covering his or her mouth while she speaks, and the person speaking from another room, and the person asking if my hearing aid isn’t working today, and the people who think wearing a hearing aid means I can hear everything, so why am I not hearing them? People ask why I’m hearing them from another room but don’t understand them close up; they ask why I am not lipreading them? (At this point, I shut my voice off and respond with, why aren’t you lipreading me? Llipreading is not easy even for the best lipreaders.) Worst of all is the rear end talker, who insists on speaking to you with their back.
As much as I loved my work, dealing with hearing people who are not willing to understand hearing loss, drained me from any positive energy I was feeling. I found hearing people and people new to hearing loss, who want quick fixes, to be extremely judgmental. Two years ago, I retired not knowing where I was going, what I was going to do or what life would throw my way. I have been very fortunate in my friendships, my family life and being open to new experiences. Social Work in the field of hearing loss and deafness was a choice I made over becoming a lawyer, partly because there was little in the way of accessible accommodations in the 1970s. Too bad: the rebellious side of me would have made a great public defender.
Retirement changed me. I happened on a sculpture class and over the past year and a half, I have found an unexpected and whole other life in me. I work diligently, focused on my art now rather than the words thrown at me throughout the day. In the evening, I don’t rush to take my hearing aid off because I am more relaxed and enjoy listening to the sounds the night time brings. I can take a deep breath and feel very fortunate to have gone through all I did and have positive feelings about the people I have
helped. I am in a kinder, gentler place where people don’t judge me by what I can or cannot hear.
Pearl Feder, L.C.S.W. is a retired Social Worker who lives in NYC. She is currently focusing on family and friends and the love that has blossomed to create sculptures.