By Bowen Tang
Imagine if you are no longer able to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Interference with any of these senses can shake a person’s confidence in navigating their world.
For people with disabilities, this is an every-day reality that has turned into a nightmare with the arrival of COVID-19. The barriers and challenges presented by the pandemic have eroded some of their hard-earned skills. In addition to being a global health crisis, COVID-19 is like the Ultimate Game of Trust where we don’t know if someone will catch our fall.
As a person with profound hearing loss living in Canada, I have the privilege of access to quality hearing care and services where I learned to listen and speak. Complemented by hearing assistive technology, I able communicate effectively in my daily interactions. In difficult listening situations, I also rely on visual cues such as reading the speaker’s mouth and facial expressions.
Now, with the prevalence of face masks, I struggle to get information in public places like grocery stores, medical clinics, and restaurants. While face masks keep the virus particles out, they also keep the sound in, distorting the speaker’s speech clarity. In addition to this reduced sound quality, important visual cues are blocked by the face mask. The resulting miscommunication has led to frustration and helplessness, and I saw the tower of confidence I had built throughout my life, collapse into rubble.
I pride myself in being a resourceful person able to solve problems I encounter, using skills learned from past experiences. But since the start of COVID-19, these skills were thrown out the window when the cashier at the grocery store stared at me during checkout. I didn’t understand what she was asking, so I tried to anticipate what the question could be and gave random responses: “I am paying by credit card” or “I don’t need bags”. It turns out she asked if I wanted to redeem my points for the eggs I purchased. Initially I did ask her to repeat, but even then, I still could not understand. I started panicking and went for the alternative which was making a fool of myself.
I realize now that my impulsiveness stemmed from not wanting to hold up the line where other people were waiting. I also made assumptions about people’s levels of patience. Even prior to the pandemic, there had been negative encounters where people dismissed me when I asked for clarifying information. I then generalized those experiences into the situations I face today, believing that it is futile to establish clear communication, particularly during the time of generally higher anxiety. Rather than using strategies that had always worked before, I froze like a deer in the headlights, standing in the checkout aisle, wishing this nightmare would be over.
As an advocate for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, I strive to educate others about the impact of hearing loss and the value of accessible communication. I am ashamed that I did not once think of disclosing my hearing loss in this situation. The phrase “I have a hearing loss” stopped short at the edge of my mouth. In another incident, a soft-voiced medical receptionist asked questions and I didn’t pick up a single word. Instead of stating that I could not hear her, I bluffed my way through the questions, answering no to all of them. This was my second visit to the clinic so I knew the questions but still, I risked giving misinformation.
As I ponder why I chose to be reckless, it comes down to maintaining as much independence as I possibly can. But this mentality is not sustainable. So, in order to rebuild my tower of confidence, I need to shift my mindset to one where I trust myself and, more importantly, trust others.
In our fast-paced world, we often don’t stop to think about the impact of our choices. COVID-19 is the speeding ticket that has helped us slow down and consider how we can navigate our journey more safely. I need to heed my inner voice telling me to take the opportunity during challenging encounters to model accessible and inclusive communication to people with hearing loss (e.g., use of clear face masks or shields, text communication). It would also give ‘hearing’ people the chance to learn from us, to enhance their life experiences through meeting us. By making them aware of our hearing loss, we open the possibility of gaining new allies.
Even though people’s reactions will vary, we must not let past experiences define future interactions. We can take a leap of faith in the hopes of transforming negativity into empowerment.
It doesn’t take long to reap the benefits, as I learned in a recent visit to a pharmacy. Once I indicated my hearing loss, the pharmacist was kind enough to write down what she needed from me. The interaction went smoothly and I thanked her for her help. It is that simple.
One of my favourite childhood stories is The Tortoise and The Hare. The tortoise was underestimated for its ability to finish the race and was quickly left behind by the hare. The hare unexpectedly became the loser because of its ego and overconfidence. The lesson learned is that slow and steady wins the race. COVID-19 is our race; the tortoise represents people with disabilities who are left behind and the hare represents everyone else. If we do not know how to trust one another, we are all losers.
In my alternative ending to the story, the hare would pick up the tortoise, who would then guide the rabbit through the path and both of them cross the finish line together. Let’s be like this tortoise and hare – let’s all be winners in life!
Bowen Tang is a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing children in Vancouver, BC. He is bimodal – using a hearing aid and a cochlear implant. Bowen is the president of the International Federation of Hard of Hearing Young People.