I am hearing impaired.

My name is John, and I am hearing impaired. I’ve told everyone at work this, but I’m not sure they take me seriously. There’s that time I shared a hotel room with a colleague during a conference. The first night he tried talking to me after I had removed my hearing aid and I didn’t know he was trying to get my attention until he raised his voice. “Are you really deaf?” he asked. Loudly, which is how I know.

Yes, I said.

“Oh, I thought you were just ignoring me all this time.”

People do joke about being deaf a lot, so I don’t blame him. But if you joke about being deaf, you could really be hearing-impaired. Might want to get that checked out before everyone around you begins to think you’re stuck up.

Now. I am not actually deaf. I do not even have profound hearing loss. But I do have relatively uncommon but significant low-frequency impairment in my right ear. This causes me a lot of difficulty with human speech, and without cyborg assistance I say “what” a lot. It’s amazing how sensitive our ears are, and how even a little reduction in hearing capability can have a profound impact.

So the hearing aid helps, but it does not restore normal hearing. Even wearing it, I said “what” a lot in a used bookstore this weekend. I know the clerk was trying to have a polite conversation with me and I knew I was failing to hold up my end because occasionally she’d look at me with this “what an asshole” look on her face and I’d realize I’d missed a question she asked me when her back was turned. You would be surprised how difficult to read lips through someone’s head.

I should have said “I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing. Please speak up.” I might also have added “I really am wearing a hearing aid and it’s turned up quite far but it can’t reproduce the entire frequency range of the human voice and so I still don’t quite get everything especially when it’s whispered to me by a person cocooned within sound-deadening paperbacks, so raise your voice for christ’s sake, I’ve done my part.” But this can seem a little excessive for a relationship that lasts just long enough to run a credit card. So I skipped it and made peace with looking like an arrogant jerk.

They’ve done astonishing things with hearing aids. But the cosmetic effect of that is pointless when you have to wear a sign around your neck that says “I am not ignoring you. I just can’t hear you. Speak up.” I’m considering moving to an ear trumpet. It will not work as well, but at least people around me will know where to shout.

In every presentation I give I say: “I am hard of hearing. I wear a hearing aid in my right ear but it is not perfect. If you have a question, please speak up or I will come and stand next to you.” I said that when I gave my talk at the Fluent Conference this year, and yes. I did go stand next to the people who asked me quiet questions.

Later in the conference, someone leaned over the row of chairs I was in to ask a question about my presentation. I turned and said: what? He said, “oh, sorry.” And then asked me the same question again, this time in my left ear.

I don’t know who you were. And I don’t think I expressed this at the time. But thank you. Thank you for remembering, thank you for understanding, and thank you for speaking up. I hope I answered your question.

The More You Know: Adam Savage of Mythbusters has more serious hearing loss in both ears, and he has a lot of useful advice for the hearing impaired and those around them.

Image Credits: Wikimedia / JKSolomon

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