What It's Like To Be Almost Deaf, But Not Quite

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By now, most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the story that has come out of Omaha, Nebraska about the student who inexplicably had his personal belongings dumped in a toilet. This story has become noteworthy, of course, because the student happens to be deaf. It is a classic case of bullying that unfortunately plays itself out time and time again in schools across these United States.

In the days since, Alex Hernandez (I’m using his name instead of the title of “deaf student” that CNN has given him) has displayed remarkable grace by speaking up about what happened to him. Alex has put his remarkable courage on display by shedding light on what it’s like to be deaf and bullied because of it. Heartwarming stories have streamed across the inter webs about his teachers buying him new school supplies, his fellow students raising money to help pay for cochlear implant batteries, and letters, cards, and emails coming to Alex from all across the world. I am truly delighted that Alex has been able to turn a truly awful experience into what will hopefully be a time of great healing for himself and his fellow students.

But I want to talk about something before it gets lost in the Hallmark-esque, warm-fuzziness that is now streaming in and oozing out of Omaha. In interviews, Alex has shared that for him, bullying is nothing new. He’s been picked on for years due to his hearing disability.

And you know what? So have I. So has every single deaf or hard-of-hearing person that I have ever met. It’s like society still doesn’t “get” what its like to not be able to hear. And, of course, as is human nature, when we don’t “get” something, we tend to mock it. Here we are, in 2016, and deafness is still being mocked. Gah, this story pisses me off.

All week I have been struggling to figure out how to describe what it’s like to not be able to hear everything. I find myself connecting with Alex Hernandez because he has cochlear implants, so he can hear…sort of. I have two hearing aids, so I can hear…mostly.

I connect with Alex because I know what it’s like to catch some things, and miss so much else. And it sucks. It really, truly sucks.

It’s an awkward thing to sometimes catch every third (or fourth or fifth) word of a conversation. It’s embarrassing to learn that someone was trying to get your attention and got upset or frustrated when you don’t respond. It’s tedious to always make sure that you are strategically placed at the dinner table, conference room, or classroom so that you can either hear the speaker, or at least read their lips. When people whisper, you either get offended or simply check out of the conversation. Because really, what’s the point? Lighting matters, as well. At least for me. If I cant see someone’s face, then I have no idea what it is they are saying. Finally, it is important to ALWAYS remember to tell people that you can’t hear very well and ask them to never talk with their backs to you or their hands in front of their face.

Hearing aids cost on average $4,000. Most of the costs associated with the purchase and maintenance of those very costly pieces of equipment are NOT covered by insurance. ASL (American Sign Language), while becoming more prevalent, is not yet available everywhere it needs to be. Close captioning for television only sort of works and it is not readily available at the movie theatres. If you want a giggle, turn it on while watching a news broadcast or sporting event at read some of the strange words that come across the screen.

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are not dumb.”

I can remember in high school, before getting my hearing aids, not having any idea that my football coaches would be yelling my name. I can remember during my freshman year of college not being able to hear stage directions while in rehearsal for a play in which I was the lead character. I can remember while “running” for a position in my Fraternity being asked if I could handle the job because I might not be able to hear. It’s the little things, I guess.

And then, of course, there is the bullying and the teasing. There’s two types, really. There’s the malicious, Alex Hernandez type of bullying, and then there is the “playful” type of teasing that is supposed to be funny, but really isn’t.

“Huh?” “Eeeh?” “Hey, deaf guy.” “Can you hear me now?” (Thanks, Verizon) Sometimes people will come up right behind you and whisper into your ear while knowing full-well that you have no idea that they are even there. And on, and on it goes.

And here’s the thing, and this is important. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are not dumb. But sometimes, we feel like it (at least I do). We want to be engaged and involved in conversations and in the decision-making process, but if the conversation starts to take a turn that we cannot follow, we have a tendency to tune out. Believe me, there is no one that is more conscious of the fact that we have two pay twice as much attention to gain half as much information. So please, as you stand in solidarity with Alex Hernandez, please use this as an opportunity to stand in solidarity with the deaf community.

Let’s put away the jokes, the whispers, the side conversations, and the awkwardness. And please, please, please, please. If you don’t get it…if it doesn’t make sense…ask.

Instead of, I don’t know, dumping a book bag in the toilet.

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