You’re not really deaf– are you?
I stared at my teammate. We had played volleyball together for many years and she had interpreted for me and another deaf teammate during our huddles. This was the first time she had ever asked me questions about being deaf.
Yes, I said, nodding my head.
“But you’re not as deaf as David, right?”
“Actually, our audiograms show that he has better hearing than me,” I explained. She looked at me with a puzzled look.
“But you have such good speech!”
So I explained more. How I couldn’t use the phone nor understand anything on the radio. I explained my speech discrimination scores– the scores that show how well someone can understand speech by auditory means alone. I score a zero in my left ear and a six percent in my right ear, a score obtained by a lucky guess. The squiggly lines on the audiogram start at 90 and hover around 110 decibels. This is the level that I begin to detect sound without my hearing aids. The hearing aids help me to hear when someone starts speaking but without lipreading, captioning or sign language, the information coming in auditorily makes no sense.
She paused and looked at me in silence. “You have some great lipreading skills,” she said. I could see that she was digesting all this information in a new light.
This isn’t the first time that this has happened–it is something that happens frequently. That’s why hearing loss is often referred to as the “invisible disability.” Often people are unaware at the incredible amount of work it takes to gather information and understand communication that goes on around us on a daily basis. And others are often unaware of how much just slides by, because it’s physically impossible to get 100% access to all that goes on around us when the sense of hearing isn’t all there.
At a social gathering in Chicago, I chatted with fellow writers, most who knew me as Deaf Mom but were meeting me for the first time. I think few realized that I was lipreading entire conversations and there were chunks of the evening that I missed. For example, when the hosts got up in front and started talking, there really was no polite way to interrupt the middle of their speech and say, “Hey, can you say that again, I missed what you said?” So that kind of stuff slides right by. And to the casual onlooker, it probably seems like I’m getting access to the communication– there’s nothing to indicate that it’s sliding right over my head.
At a friend’s wedding, I was meeting an older woman for the first time and I missed something that she said. “Oh the music is so loud!” she said, and then proceeded to explain again what she said. I still didn’t understand what she said and I explained that I was deaf. She cocked her head to the side a bit, looked at me and said…
“Oh! But you seem so normal!”