I’ve shocked myself. For the first time ever, I’ve told someone that I’m deaf.
Deaf – I’ve never used that term to describe my hearing levels – or lack of. For the first two thirds of my life, I described myself as hard of hearing. In the most recent third of my life, I use the term hearing loss, as in Hi, I’m a person with hearing loss. I have hearing loss, please speak up.
But lately, in pandemic-time, when I have to ask yet another masked salesperson or clerk to repeat themselves, I throw in an explanatory, “I’m deaf.”
The reason is simple. “Deaf” is snappy. It’s fast. ‘Hearing’ people know what it means – or think they do. But even if they have only the most basic knowledge of what it means to be deaf, they know this: I’m not understanding them say whatever it is they’re saying, as they moved their masked head around.
But if I say, excuse me, I have hearing loss, I feel as if I have to add some other qualifiers such as, I need to see your lips. And then the person does one of two things. They could look a little taken aback but tell me they’re not allowed to pull their mask down. In which case, I put on my aggrieved-person-with-disability look and say, Alrighty then, we have a problem. It goes to the next stage of trial-and-error conversation which involves guessing, pointing, and even help from someone else nearby who is 6’ away, who’s not bound by employee rules, and who can translate for me.
Or the clerk can pull down their mask a bit and we can finish our transaction in record time.
Audiologically, I am deaf. It’s a fact. I have zip-nada-nothing in my unaided right ear. In my left ear, I am very-severe-to-very-profound (I put in ‘very’ twice just to emphasize the degree to which I cannot hear.) Without my hearing aid, I might hear a nearby door slam. Otherwise, I’m in a silent movie.
But with my wonderful hearing aid for my left ear and my fabulous cochlear implant on the right side, I am now bimodal. (What sort of response do you think I’d get if I pointed to my ear and said, excuse me, please face me, I’m bimodal?) With the enormous boost I get from these powerful devices, I’m no longer functionally deaf. I’m not fully ‘hearing’ either, as I need to read lips, use captions, streaming technology and pretty well anything that will enhance my hearing levels.
I seldom use ‘hard of hearing’ anymore because I think the term is goofy in today’s common speech. In centuries gone by, “hard” used to mean something that was difficult to accomplish and full of obstacles. An unsuccessful student was considered “hard to learn” and the writer Charles Dickens wrote “I have been very hard to sleep”. Today, ‘hard’ in the antiquated sense is used only to refer to hearing. I still use the term if I think that’s what someone will understand, but prefer to say ‘I have hearing loss’. Some people don’t like this term, because they never had any hearing to lose and you can’t argue with that. But I had very mild hearing loss at age two, but have since lost almost all of my high childhood hearing levels.
As an advocate for people with hearing loss, for those who are hard of hearing, hearing-impaired, deaf, late-deafened, deafened, and a little deaf, I don’t care how you self-identify. It shouldn’t matter to me, because I’m not you and I don’t have your life experience. It makes sense, then, that we shouldn’t shame other people for using terms that we think are not exactly correct. Instead, we should respect the fact that a person is revealing something personal about themselves and are looking for support.
What we need to know is the next part – what can we do to make communication happen between us, together, now.