Are You in the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Closet?

For many years, I hid in the deaf/hard of hearing closet. I wasn’t comfortable dealing with the lone hearing aid that was given to me in fourth grade. During the school day, I hid the hearing aid under my thick hair and pulled off some impressive bluffing maneuvers. I would smile and nod along to conversations during lunch time and at recess.  I did so well that the teachers often told my Mom that I was getting along “just fine in the classroom despite my hearing loss.”

When I look back at my early years in elementary education, I know that I had hearing loss long before it was diagnosed. I remember looking around after getting off the monkey bars, only to find all the kids lined up against the wall, ready to go back inside. I was the last kid left on the playground and I learned to calculate the time left at recess so I wouldn’t be the last kid in. I remember the kindergarten teacher coming over to tap me whenever nap time had ended. I quickly learned to watch the kid next to me and when they got up, I got up.

In second grade, the teacher had a reading session and introduced the book, “Curious George.” I couldn’t get the word “curious.”

“Erius George,” I repeated after her.

No, she said. She repeated the word and then went on reading. I stared at the book, seeing the man with the yellow hat and the brown monkey. I had no idea what the book was about or the interactions between the man and the monkey. It wasn’t until I had my first kid and obtained a copy of “Curious George,” that I finally learned what the story was about.

There are a lot of chunks of my life like that.

I’m sure to my teachers, I appeared to be doing pretty good in school. In seventh grade, we had a class where we each took turns reading a paragraph out loud. I would calculate the number of students ahead of me, count the paragraphs in the book and figure out where I needed to start reading. Sometimes I would get lucky and see someone close to me reading with their finger on each word and if I listened, I could follow along with the words. Then when it was my turn, I’d start in on the correct paragraph.

But inside of me, I know my stomach was churning and I was tense in trying to keep up. There were thousands of situations all through the school day, in after-school activities or on the playground where I was hyper-alert in trying to follow it all.

I’m sure today, there are kids still going through this routine– this coping skill that gets them through the day as “normal” as possible.

I can remember the day I came out of the deaf/hard of hearing closet. It was actually in college. I rode the bus with my hair pulled back in a pony tail and my hearing aid perched on my ear.

And I didn’t care.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t care who saw my hearing aid in public.

That was a turning point for me.

Over the years, I’ve met some people walking around with that closet around them.  Any talk about being deaf or hard of hearing is a painful thing. They know that elephant in the room is there and they step aside so they can talk around it.

One only has to type in “deaf mom” on Google and they’ll quickly learn that Karen Putz and DeafMom go hand in hand. There would be no hiding the fact from a potential employer nor would I even try. Lately, I’ve been receiving emails from other bloggers, who share that they’re hard of hearing or deaf, but they don’t want to highlight that in their blogs for various reasons. Some feel that their hearing status has no bearing on their life. Others feel it’s a sign of weakness and they don’t want to share that.

“I don’t hide it in person,” says Holly Kolman. “It’s just that the internet is forever.”

After chatting with Holly, I learned that she had never published anything online about being hard of hearing. She was willing to discuss it for the first time online on this blog.

“Life with a hearing loss means everything is harder,” she explained. “Almost everyone takes it for granted that people can hear…it’s like expecting someone with normal breathing to understand what asthma feels like–it’s impossible. It is very socially isolating. People think that you’re ignoring them when you don’t answer and they take it personally.”

Holly recalled that some of her teachers did not understand what she was going through in the classroom. Over the years, they told her, “You hear what you want to hear.”

I’ve been told that too. 

In sixth grade music class, we had a test where everyone had to listen to a recording on tape and then write down the beat times.  The teacher noticed that I wasn’t writing anything down.  She tried to explain what I needed to do.  Again, I tried to listen along.  Again, there was nothing for me to write down. 

The teacher was upset.  To this day, I still remember her words:  “Karen, you need to turn your hearing aid up and listen!” 

I told my Mom about this incident and she marched to the principal’s office the next day and explained why I couldn’t follow the music.  The principal called in the music teacher and for some reason, he made me issue an apology to her.  I didn’t understand why, but there I was, saying I was sorry.  To substitute for the missed test, I had to write two 500-word essays on the piano and the guitar–over Christmas vacation.  While my friends were enjoying a break, I was writing reports.

I think we’ve come a long way in terms of awareness, but I think we still have a ways to go to break down those closets that are still walking around out there.

24 replies
  1. Don G.
    Don G. says:

    Hi Karen —

    Your story about being mainstreamed rings many chords with me (and I suspect many of us out there).

    I was especially disgusted at the story of your having to apologize TO the music teacher, when you did NOTHING wrong!

    Reminds me of when I was in Middle School, I hated PE (not very athletic), so I would conveniently “forget” to bring my PE clothes. I “forgot” one too many times and had to take Detention. That wasn’t a problem. I knew that was the rule, and I accepted I would have to go.

    So, that afternoon, I find my way to the room where they have the DH and sit down. Nobody else in the room. I wait about 15 – 20 minutes, and still nobody there. So I go across the hall to the Principal’s office and ask what was going on. As it happened, my Homeroom teacher was in there getting his mail. It turned out that they had announced on the PA system that DH was cancelled that day. I asked my teacher why he didn’t tell me about the announcement. He said I was a good kid who had never had DH, so he didn’t think the announcement applied to me. GRRR.

    Fine. Whatever, I’m ready to walk home and get out of there (I lived only about 1/4 mile from school). But no. School rules are that I have to ride the bus or someone has to drive me off campus. I had no one to pick me up. My teacher said he would drive me home when he was finished work in an hour.

    So I sat in the Principal’s office for an hour, waiting for my teacher to take me home. Pretty much like a DH, right? I STILL had to go to the DH the next day, even though I tried to argue that I had essentially “served my time”.

    Punished twice for the same offense…. cruel and unusual punishment! Looking back today, I wish I’d fought harder against being doubly punished. Or refused to go to DH since I had served the time, in effect. Create awareness that their system was stacked against me as a lone Deaf person in their school.

    Don G.s last blog post..Are neutral sources of information truly “neutral”?

  2. uberbabyboomer
    uberbabyboomer says:

    Thank you for sharing your story – for me, it is my story too. Amazingly similar school incidents – I was born with my hearing loss so it is just who I am, but not all folks accept that even today. So, the more stories like yours that are out there the better. Things still have a very long way to go in accepting and understanding the effects of a hearing loss. I differentiate between complete deafness and hearing loss because I believe from my own experience that they are quite different. I look forward to reading your blog.
    thanks again,
    uberbabyboomer

  3. Kym
    Kym says:

    Hello Karen…Thank you for your story. I can relate to quite a bit of it!
    These stories need to be told! Although we’ve come a long way there are still some people who view deafness as a disability or treat you like a 2nd class citizen.
    Work feels like school all over again sometimes, not being included in conversation, being the last to know things, having to lipread all day with so many different accents, mouth shapes, bad teeth…ugh. I have to really pay attention all day long and that can get exhausting.
    I feel like the odd girl out still, like I did in school.
    I always enjoy reading your blog, this is the first time I’ve commented…no more lurking. 🙂

    Kym

    Kyms last blog post..i am…

  4. Sam
    Sam says:

    Good grief, I cannot believe that they made you apologise to the music teacher!! She should have apologised to you!! It just makes me realise just how lucky I was with my education. I do not recall any bad moments or times when things were stacked against me – I was fortunate.

    Sams last blog post..One World One Heart

  5. Rox
    Rox says:

    Even though I was “out of the closet” and all teachers knew about my hearing loss, teachers would still make stupid comments such as “she hasn’t been listening in class”. Duh! I experienced the same tension everyday, always feeling like I had to be on alert for changes, etc. I didn’t want to be embarrassed or teased by the other kids for missing important information, so I always acted like I forgot or couldn’t do something when I missed an announcement. I always wonder if I had gone to a school for the deaf, if my experiences would have been different.

  6. David
    David says:

    Oh, wow! This really brings back memories! I was a bit older than you describe, but I still remember the strategies you describe. I think I was delayed in admitting that everything was not “OK”, since I was in school before IDEA and formal mainstreaming, so I never had any contact with other DHH kids or adults. My only imagination about what might happen if I admitted that I could not hear what the other kids seemed to hear was that it would be BAD.

    David

  7. Judith Wilson Burkes
    Judith Wilson Burkes says:

    I walked around in that closet for many years. And, while I wore contact lenses, no one knew the extent of my visual impairment either. I felt like, Whew!, no one knows my little secrets.

    Only recently, in my 40s, have I acknowledged both my hearing and vision impairments. Since I am partially deaf, no one thinks it matters, but unless, I am at home or in quiet surroundings, I cannot hear my speaking partners. Now, I will explain to people why they must walk on my left side, but even very good friends forget.

    I have so many similar childhood events, including the frustrating times in the cafeteria, auditorium and trying out for school plays. I remember one particular devastating time, getting separated from friends at a swimming pool one day and having a panic attack, because I forgot my directions back to my towel (couldn’t see) and couldn’t hear anyone calling my name over the noise.

    Unfortunately, there is no hearing aid capable of giving me any help, so I have learned to read the lips, meet in quiet places, like libraries, ask people to repeat themselves and walk on the right side; grateful for my one ear that does the work of two.

  8. Kelkel
    Kelkel says:

    Wow. Usually any mention of some kind of medical reason for not being able to do an activity will have the school jumping all over themselves trying to apologize for it. That’s just ridiculous.

    Your comments about reading reminded me of how stupid that is too. In 7th grade English we all went around the room taking turns reading, but you know what? For kids who are dyslexic, it is so hard to read out loud.

    I think at some point our teacher just started skipping the dyslexic kid, but you’re still singling them out and making it seem like they “can’t” do it.

    Maybe it makes sense to force kids to “participate” but I know I am a very strong reader, and I can read out loud just fine, but I can’t actually absorb what I’m reading if I’m reading it aloud! So “participating” like that actually makes me understand the work less.

    Schools need to come up with better ways to deal with the fact that all kids are different!

    Kelkels last blog post..Carving out a path

  9. DeafMom
    DeafMom says:

    Don. G– It’s amazing how the memory stands out after many years.

    Uberbabyboomer– I agree, the more we share about ourselves, I think more we spread understanding and awareness.

    Kym– second class citizen– ah, yes– I experienced that in the drive thru a year ago at Steak ‘n Shake. Glad you came out of lurkdom to share!

    Sam–I’m hoping the same for my kids today. They are definitely going through a very positive experience in their education today, but I still have some holes to plug in terms of socialization opportunities within my district. Working on that.

    Rox–it’s possible your experience would have been different if your communication access needs were met. I know that there are kids out there today still doing what we did years ago and bluffing their way through daily life. 🙁

    David– that’s one of the reasons I think that it’s very important for families to have deaf and hard of hearing adults in their kid’s lives, for mentoring, role modeling and reassurance.

  10. Saraj
    Saraj says:

    I still bluff a lot. Usually it’s because I think I’ll catch up to the conversation and by the time I realize I’m not going to they have moved on I something new. The most frustrating part is catching a useless phrase perfectly and missing everything else. For example I can hear someone say “I couldn’t believe it!” but the rest is blahblahlah.

    I do great one on one. It takes two to communicate and I can be number two. But make me number three or four and I might as well not be there.

    Sarajs last blog post..Skiing and living in the South

  11. terry (human)
    terry (human) says:

    WOW.. You are telling my story; Imagine being austricized (spelling not sure) but stood out because you were the only one who had a disability!! Thats me; my one and only friend in elementary school was another boy who stood out because he was catholic!!!
    I attended a public elementary school with all white, jewish and hearing…. I attended middle school with a mainstreamed dept but I was picked up on a tiny yellow bus that drove 45 min or more to take me to school therefore I could not participate in any after school activites although I did manage to take a few hearing courses. High school was a joke; I was not challenged at all because I was only allowed to take art, drama, pe, classes with the hearing and the other classes did not provoke any challenges for me. (environmental sciene passed as Biology!!!!)(not permitted any foreign languages, advance sciences, any history besides american history, what world history; oh my goodness!! I never knew there was such a class until I finished high school!!!
    I have a lot of anger about this issue..

  12. jodi
    jodi says:

    Important post, Karen, and I can’t even imagine how many stories there are just like yours. The more we read, the more sensitive we become. You are an excellent advocate, Steak and Shake could not have known about those writing assignments. *smile*

  13. Steve Smith
    Steve Smith says:

    I had a 40% hearing loss in both ears since right after birth. Though it was discovered in 3rd grade when I kept waiting with my eyes closed for the hearing test to begin till after it was over, I never got hearing aids till my mid thirties. Wow! I had no idea how much I’d been faking it. I work with special Ed. Kids now and can spot hearing loss right away… always vigilant of what the kids around them are doing, getting distracted easily. I am amazed at how much effort it took, especially as an adult, to stay on top of what was going on. Hearing aids may be aggravating at times, but I am a much more relaxed person with them. Thanks for opening the discussion. Steve

  14. Paula Rosenthal
    Paula Rosenthal says:

    Loved your post, Karen. 🙂 I’ve always been open about my hearing loss. The day I met my husband-to-be, we were in a noisy gym watching a volleyball game. I told him within mere minutes of meeting him because I thought he was cute and didn’t want him to think I was ditzy if I didn’t answer his questions correctly. His response? “So do I.” What a shock and the rest is history. Our 18th anniversary is coming up soon.

    Going to sign up for your blog feed by email now. Hope you’re on mine!

  15. vanessa
    vanessa says:

    The worst was in high school when the teacher would put on a movie and wanted us to take notes! Some of these stories bring back painful memories. I remember my first hearing aid in middle school. I wore it for one year and when I entered high school I refused to wear it out of vanity. It wasn’t until I was 19 years old that I finally gave in and had to wear them in both ears because.I couldn’t hear anyone unless they were right next to me. To this day I’m not completely comfortable telling people I have a hearing problem. I only acknowledge it if I’m at the doctor or that person brings it up but I won’t talk about it. I wish I wasn’t “in the closet” but ever since high school I considered it to be a sign of weakness. I rather people think that I was wierd or stuck up.I’m in my late twenties now and its a struggle but I hope I can get to your level one day. I love reading your stories, they’re very inspiring!

    When I was 23 I was living with my friend and she got really mad at me because she kept calling me from her bedroom and I didn’t hear her. I’ll never forgot how she told me that “its not that you can’t hear, its just that you don’t listen” yeah, right…

  16. Heather Brownlee
    Heather Brownlee says:

    I just wanted to thank you for your words and blogs. I often find myself in tears as I read through your pages. This one in particular; it’s practically the story of my life. Your words inspired me to come out of the closet and start my own blog in an effort to help my friends, family, and anyone who will read it understand what I and others like me live with.
    It was only this fall that I finally let it all out and even some of my closest relatives had no idea what my life has been. I’m still a little scared about employers knowing especially as I try to get back into to teaching but I just can’t live without putting all of my cards out on the table anymore.
    So again, thank you for your inspiration and the work you do towards awareness.
    My blog is http://www.lifeinmute.blogspot.com if you would like to read my story. I am adding a link to your blog so I can share your words with my followers as they definitely hit home and so much of what you say is a shadow of my own life.

  17. Daisy
    Daisy says:

    Fascinating post and comments. As more of us come out of the DHH closet, the general public will better understand how we fit into the world.

  18. Kate
    Kate says:

    Hi there. Thanks- this post and the responses help me to acknolwedge that I am not the only one! It often feels that way! THere are many times that I have been completely oblivious to what happens around me- social groups are almost impossible at times, and watching tv and listening to music mean that I might disturb the neighors… I’m only 25 and I rememeber doing so many of those things. I’ve really missed a lot…. I’m having a bit of anxiety right now because I can function well enough if I am sitting close to a person and speaking with them individually, and have just succeeded in securing myself a gig teaching a basic weaving workshop to preteens (a small group) at my local community center. I do not have a workring hearing aid now, and have never taught in this kind of setting or even ‘formally’ taught at all before…. I’ve really gotten myself into a situation- and I’m so scared that I’ll have trouble doing what I sold myself as capable of doing….

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  1. […] was inspired by reading A Deaf Mom Shares Her World’s blogpost called, “Are You in the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Closet?” and I read Jodi’s a.k.a. American Mom in Tuscany and Miss Kat’s blog entries […]

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