Disability. I’ve always hated that word—even more so when people started applying the term to me.
Almost ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties, I went to see an ENT about some issues I was having with my hearing. I wasn’t altogether certain that I was even really having issues—just a sneaking suspicion that I was missing out on things being said in conversation. I figured they would take a look at me and find some sort of reparable damage to my eardrum, or maybe water or earwax lodged in my ear. Maybe they would even tell me that I was hearing just fine, and that the whole thing was paranoia on my part.
What I was not expecting was the news that I had been living with significant, permanent hearing loss, and the only solution for it was wearing hearing aids.
I left that office feeling grief-stricken and shaken. In fact, I experienced many of the typical stages of grief: shock and disbelief, denial, anger, depression…I stayed in denial for a long time. I spent another year trying to ignore my problem before going to see another ENT for a second opinion and agreeing to purchase my first set of hearing aids.
The hearing aids helped quite a bit, but they were not the restore-all, miracle solution that I was looking for. The problem for me was that I assumed once I started wearing hearing aids, I would slip seamlessly back into the hearing community, and that was not really the case. I have long hair, and most of the time, I choose to wear it down over my ears to cover my hearing aids and pretend to be like everyone else. But I didn’t realize at first how difficult that would be (or that maybe I shouldn’t be pretending at all).
I have been in countless situations when I’ve had to fess up to people and stop hiding my secret: working retail jobs while I was in grad school, when I had trouble understanding customers over the phone and understanding the other employees as they spoke to me over the store headset. I’ve had trouble in the classroom as a teacher, understanding the rude comments that students mumble to each other or to me under their breath. I’ll never forget the painful conversation that I had with my university professor after being granted a highly sought-after internship that involved working with young children with reading difficulties, and confessing to her that I was having trouble understanding the children as they were reading. She told me that I needed to officially file my disability with the university office so that accommodations could be made for me. Disability! It was a word that had always applied to other people, but in this case, it meant that I was literally not able to do my job correctly. And I had trouble not feeling like a failure.
While navigating the professional world has always been a bit of a minefield, home was always a safe haven. It was a place where I could let my guard down and relax, without having to concentrate so hard on processing the sounds around me.
Until I had kids.
Enter a whole new list of things to worry about and mom-guilt over: what if I can’t hear my child crying in the night (or while I’m in the shower) because my hearing aids are out? What if my little crawler stumbles across a tiny battery that I’ve dropped on the floor and swallows it? What if my kid gets frustrated with me because I can’t understand what he’s saying? What if my hearing loss is hereditary, and I pass the trait along to my sons?
The list could go on and on. But it’s a new year, and I’m deciding to start asking some new “what if” questions.
What if I start being open and up-front with people about my hearing issues (including my kids), instead of hiding it like it’s a dirty secret?
What if I use my hearing impairment as a teaching tool for my children, to help them learn empathy for people with different life challenges?
What if I start counting my blessings, like the fact that I can take out my hearing aids and experience glorious silence when my children are being obnoxiously loud?
What if I start reaching out to the community, so that I can communicate with other people like me (which would help me feel less isolated), and so that I can realize that there are people out there dealing with far worse issues than hearing impairments?