By Michael A. Harvey
“I was outraged on his behalf.” The accessibility advocate Barbara Johnson was referring to having met someone with hearing loss who didn’t understand that his employer was obligated to provide accommodations, and that his company would also benefit if he could contribute rather than withdraw. In contrast to Barbara’s outrage, he was unruffled: no big deal – he told her she was overreacting.
But that phrase keeps swirling around in my head for reasons not yet entirely clear. It seems important, touching on many levels: self-advocacy, empowerment, equality, and I keep flashing back to that character in the movie Network, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) screaming, “I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE! So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’… Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… Then we’ll figure out what to do…”
MANY WITH HL “WILL TAKE THIS ANYMORE”
This kind of outpouring is a rare occurrence for persons with hearing loss. Too often the dialogue with a person who has hearing loss (HL) goes something like this:
Mike: “I can’t believe that you weren’t promoted at your job because they didn’t provide real-time captioning for your training. It’s infuriating!”
HL: “Surprise, surprise (with resigned sarcasm). “Why on earth are you so angry?”
Mike: “Help me understand why on earth you’re not angry.
HL: “I’m used to it… I don’t want to make a fuss… I’m embarrassed… I shouldn’t need accommodations… I want to be like everyone else… I’m scared they’ll fire me. They’ll be angry at me… They’ll pity me… There’s nothing I can do anyway… No one will listen.”
At this point, I may explore how and why that person feels so helpless. I may get a history of successful or unsuccessful experiences of assertiveness or self-advocacy, explore symptoms of anxiety and depression, self-esteem, learned helplessness, or irrational thoughts that fuel one’s passivity.
If he would only get better hearing aids or even any hearing aids, then he would enjoy life more and be able to participate in the world; if only she would demand captioning at the conference, then she would be happier, more alive, more part of the human race. If only.
However, at the end of the day, although we may further understand the myriad psychological, sociological, economic reasons that can lead one to accept the status quo–dehumanizing, discriminatory, and oppressive as it is–all too often, these insights don’t help one get unstuck. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter; the light bulb has to be motivated to change.
PARTNERS PASS ALONG THEIR PAIN
One of my favorite cartoons shows a couple on an airplane. One spouse asks the other, “Do you want to be scared on this trip or should I?”
Similarly, helping professionals, family members, and significant others often find themselves becoming the recipients and holders of people’s emotional outrage to discrimination, as if they “give” it to another so that they don’t have to bear it themselves. This isn’t done maliciously or even verbally, as in the airplane cartoon, but it’s a common psychological phenomenon. All kinds of couples give each other painful emotions to hold: spouses, therapists/patients, accessibility advocates/consumers, to name a few.
But then I remind myself that it ain’t so simple. I am only a witness to oppression, only an outside observer, and I don’t have to live with the consequences of another’s decision “not to take this anymore.” Now I think, “Who the hell do you think you are to suggest that another person feel angry and advocate? It’s easy for you – a white, hearing psychologist – to spout off like this.” And I end with “C’mon, Mike, get off your high horse. The world ain’t fair and never will be.”
WHAT MAY TURN OUTRAGE INTO ACTION?
Yet I remain curious about how, when, and why a person becomes empowered not to take this anymore. An instructive story: There was a Jewish family in Russia in the late 19th century, an era of pogroms when neighbors would throw rocks at their home and cause massive destruction. This family had a beautiful glass chandelier that they kept hidden and protected in a closet during the week and screwed it on the dining room ceiling every Friday night and Saturday for Sabbath. Then they would unscrew it and put it back in the closet. Again and again, week after week, month after month, year after year.
But one time, they forgot to return it to its protective hiding place. Sure enough, someone threw rocks through their dining room window and damaged the chandelier. This was the point when they said, “That’s enough! We’re moving to America.”
How does one come to realize the benefits of holding onto being “mad as hell,” even of nurturing, amplifying, and guiding this emotion toward not taking this anymore!? What propels some people to better their lives when their “chandelier breaks,” while others succumb to despair and passivity? Why did Rosa Parks choose that particular day to refuse to be relegated to the back of the bus? What would it take for Barbara Johnson’s colleague with hearing loss to insist that his employer provide reasonable accommodations?
Despite the many inspirational stories, I don’t believe that the impetus for self-advocacy is necessarily the expectation of success. I wonder if it has more to do with self-care. In the words of Elie Wiesel, who has dedicated his life to fighting oppression after being liberated from Auschwitz, “In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.”
Michael A. Harvey, PhD, ABPP, provides training and consultation on mental health issues having to do with hearing loss. As a Clinical Psychologist, he has a private practice in Framingham, Mass. and was a consultant faculty at Salus University, where he taught online courses relating to the psychosocial aspects of hearing loss. He writes a regular column, “What’s On Your Mind?,” in Hearing Loss, the journal for the Hearing Loss Association of America. In addition to his over 45 articles, his books include Listen with the Heart: Relationships and Hearing Loss, The Odyssey of Hearing Loss: Tales of Triumph, Psychotherapy with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons: A Systemic Model, and a co-edited book entitled Culturally Affirmative Psychotherapy with Deaf Persons.