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I can clear out a crowded fountain area just by "arriving". My wobble and service dog can put people off.

I can clear out a crowded fountain area just by “arriving”. My wobble and service dog can put people off.

I’m big on time alone. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a homebody. Don’t get me wrong. I love interacting with people. However, if I go to much time without some “alone time”, I’m a grouch. I can tell I’ve reached my limit when I don’t filter what I’m saying and just “tell it like it is”. I’ve always wondered if it is an unconscious desire to drive people away by just being mean and ornery because I want – I NEED – to spend some time alone? It is a little “red flag” for me. If I get grouchy, I examine my schedule to see if I’m spending enough time alone. The time is necessary for me to re-group.

Hearing loss requires ACTIVE listening

Perhaps it is because I have a hearing loss and it requires so much attention just to listen. I may need to repeat all or part of what I heard in order to seek clarification. I can’t listen without thinking about listening. Gone are the days I can prepare food in the kitchen or wash dishes while talking. I have to stop what I’m doing and actively engage in conversation to communicate. I have to see well to hear well. I have to stop what I’m doing and concentrate just to hear.

My husband has been accompanying Chloe and I for our evening walks lately. I’ve discovered that it is even difficult to WALK and talk at the same time. If I’m to communicate while walking, I don’t look to see where I’m stepping. It doesn’t take much for me to stumble. But who can watch the path if you are having to look at the talking head?

Needing alone time means that I prioritize “me time” just to give my mind a break. I don’t even have to “turn my ears off”. But just being able to “be” without having to give something – or someone my undivided attention is very necessary to my coping.

Alone because of Self-imposed isolation

People with disability or invisible illness are sometimes alone by choice. It is easier to be alone than it is to deal with others. Maybe the stares bother us. Maybe we are tired of having to tell the same ol’ story about why we move funny, have a service dog, or overuse the word “Huh?“. Maybe it is just HARD to get out and about. Physical barriers can prevent some people with mobility impairment from creating social networks, creating a feeling of isolation and a lack of access to support (Matt & Butterfield, 2006). It may be HARD to go shopping or run errands. It may require a plan of action not needed by others. Spur-of-the-moment activities may be a thing of the past for people who are “differently-abled”.

Maybe the person has felt shunned or as if they are “too much work”. I know that I have made the choice to not participate in something if I know I can’t be independent. It has kept me isolated at times. Chloe, service dog extraordinaire, can do so much for me. But she can’t disintegrate background noise so that I can hear better, nor can she eliminate a spin in my visual field. I’m incapable of visiting, for example, a food court in a mall without assistance. I cannot order, carry a tray, and walk to a table by myself. I’ve even clipped Chloe to my belt loop before with faith she would heel on command, and would find that I still have trouble balancing a tray with food and drink. I can’t balance it all and also look up to find an empty table. Balancing myself and avoiding falls is hard enough without trying to balance “stuff”! This has caused me to feel like I’m not as connected to some of the people I know who go and hang out at the mall or go to a coffee shop together.

Isolated because of Stereotypes

Sometimes people who are differently-abled are isolated because they ARE different. It is a common problem with human beings. If someone is different we may have stereotypes about what we perceive is different about them and then treat them in a unique way as a result. Sometimes people ignore folks with disabilities or chronic illness because they don’t know what to do or say. A colleague at work once told me, “Denise I’ve seen you wobble before just standing and waiting for an elevator. I was fearful that if I stopped and talked to you and accidentally bumped you that you’d go down for the count!” She had to learn through numerous interactions with me that I rarely fall as the result of another. I fall flat on my face under my own steam thank you very much. This same colleague told me that I “looked vulnerable”. Having a disability can scare people into keeping a distance – fearing what they don’t understand and choosing not to interact to cope with that fear.

People with disabilities can sometimes advocate in a very negative, belligerent way. After doing so, they only succeed in setting the stage for that person when they encounter the NEXT person with disability that comes into their store or restaurant. I can always tell when a manager has had “difficult encounters” when they come up apologizing all over themselves to ask if Chloe is a service dog or if they can assist with anything. They have had to “battle it out” with angry people before to simply inquire if the dog they have brought into their establishment is a service dog.

One day last month when I went out to eat I was given one of those electronic alert boxes to alert me as to when a table was available. The hostess kept apologizing and asking if she needed to come and get me, or would I be able to tell if the box was vibrating. Since it lit up and shook, I explained I didn’t need to hear anything. I would know when a seat was available. After being helpful to the point of almost becoming a nuisance, she said, “You are so nice. Usually when I ask if I can help someone who needs extra help they become angry and loud“.

I blinked a couple of times. It helps me process. I responded, “Oh I’m loud, but I can tell you want to help. Maybe you should wait to see if the person asks for extra assistance“.

Her eyes lit up and she acted as if that was the most novel, innovative idea. “Well why didn’t I think of that?” she gushed. Why indeed?

The administrator at one of the schools I teach at told me, “Denise? I never know if you want or need my help with something. So I’m going to trust that if you need help you will ask!” I’ve always appreciated that. I know my limits. I’ll ask if I need help.

Yet many don’t know what – if anything – to do to help. So they hang back and inadvertently ignore a person who is “differently-abled”. Regardless of abilities, most people just want to fit in and belong. They need connection. Without it a person can become depressed or anxious – even paranoid.  Pretty, Andrews, and Collet (1994) explain that two important aspects of connectivity: a sense of community and social support have both been found to buffer against the effects of stress, anxiety and depression and to enhance well-being. People don’t realize that by forcing isolation on someone they can cause emotional injury. There is a difference between choosing quiet time alone, and enduring the painful reality of being alone in a crowded room. So what’s a person to do?

Include them. Treat them like you would anyone else. Trust they will ask for assistance if needed. Treat them with respect – just like you should every person. Love them. There may be a few things they do differently, but their need for inclusion and connection is the same as your own. Work at really seeing every soul in a crowd. No one should be invisible.

Denise Portis

© 2013 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Matt, S. B., & Butterfield, P. (2006). Changing the disability climate: Promoting tolerance in the workplace.American Association of Occupational Health Nurse, 54, 129–134.
Pretty, G. M. H., Andrews, L., & Collet, C. (1994). Exploring adolescents’sense of community and its relationship to loneliness.Journal of Community Psychology, 22, 346–358.