According to data provided by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS, 2006)), 37 million adults in the United States have a hearing loss. This is approximately 14.9% (2007) of persons over the age of 18 living in the United States. Gallaudet Research Institute (2007) states that anywhere from 2 to 4 adults out of every 1000, is “functionally deaf”, but of that number more than half became deaf after the age of 18-years-old. (NOTE: this would be after the acquisition of oral language). As many as 22 out of every 1000 adults in the U.S. consider that they have a “severe hearing impairment”. (Their hearing loss affects their lives and impacts the way that they communicate).
Who am I?
I began losing my hearing when I started having children. At the age of 25-years-old when my daughter was born, I have a very vague and fuzzy memory of thinking I may have a cold as speech sounded muffled to me. At the age of 27-years-old, my son had come along as well and at that point my husband and I both knew that something was up with my hearing. I went to an audiologist and was diagnosed with a moderate hearing loss… “did I want to buy a hearing aid for my ‘worse’ ear?”
Although I am deaf (with a small “d” as opposed to the capital “D” for culturally Deaf folks), I don’t consider myself deaf. I don’t think it’s a matter of denial either. I speak with my voice, and use a cochlear implant and hearing aid to maximize what I hear. For me… this is “normal hearing”. My “new normal”. I’m comfortable and happy with what I hear.
I know sign language, but it is highly unusual that I do. I learned ASL in college because I had two friends in my dorm who were culturally Deaf. I’ve been learning sign and taking classes ever since. I don’t use sign language with other hard-of-hearing people because the vast majority of them do not use sign language. Think about it for a moment. If like most people who lose their hearing, you do so after having learned oral language… won’t you try to continue to communicate in a way that more closely resembles the way that you did before your hearing loss? On top of trying to live with a newly acquired disability, would you want to learn a new language including it’s syntax and grammar, only to accomplish being able to sign to other people who happen to know sign? Doesn’t make sense does it? That is why the vast majority of people who lose their hearing turn to technology, surgery and/or reading lips.
Is ASL a bad thing if you are an oral deaf adult?
I’ve been to numerous hearing loss conventions where the attendance was anywhere from 500-800 hard-of-hearing people. These conventions often hire interpreters for the twenty or so people who use ASL as their primary means of communication. CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation using a court reporter) is also usually being paid for and the many workshops and sessions are also looped or have infra-red technology so that people with t-coils on their hearing aids and cochlear implants can hear more clearly. The small nucleus of folks who use primarily ASL tend to “hang out” together at these conventions. I have seen some very strong bonds and friendships develop. However, they are also isolated at times because they cannot speak to the hard-of-hearing majority who do not use sign. Sure! You can write notes, but I’ve rarely seen the effort made.
So should a HoH (hard-of-hearing) person learn ASL? My personal opinion is that learning a little bit of ASL is a good tool to use at home when you happen to have your hearing aids or cochlear implant out… or should your batteries die. Actually, HoH folks tend to learn Pidgin sign language, or exact signed English. They tend to sign exactly as they would speak in English (which isn’t ASL). I’ve been trying to talk my HLAA (Hearing Loss Association of America) chapter into doing one meeting on “often used phrases in ASL”. I believe knowing these phrases at home will facilitate communication in the situations I mentioned above. It can also be fun to learn a “hand full” of sign. However, most HoH people do not try to use sign language outside the home when they are at work, church or in public. They normally read lips, try to set up ideal listening environments, use technologies available, and often have hearing aids and/or cochlear implants.
I get a little aggravated when I make a doctor’s appointment and they offer to set up “Deaf Talk” for me since my chart is flagged with “deaf”. First of all, I’m on the PHONE making an appointment with them! I explain that I use a cochlear implant to communicate and that I speak English and prefer oral language. I suppose my preference is unusual in that I actually teach ASL as an alternative foreign language part-time. However, I do not associate myself with the Deaf (note the capital D) as I use my voice to talk in public. When I had jury duty this last year, the Frederick County court system had a CART reporter for me to use during that time. It was a very positive experience for both Chloe and I, as the courthouse doesn’t get a lot of service dogs either.
Having a CI and meeting a Deaf person
For lack of a better way to explain it, I have been “mistreated” far more often by the culturally Deaf than I ever have been by people with normal hearing. I’m not sure if it is distinctive to our area of the country, or if the attitude is nationwide now. However, it seems the culturally Deaf as a whole tend to feel pretty threatened by cochlear implants. I suppose I make it worse in that I wear “bling” on my CI, and my hearing aid has a bright red ear mold. I wear my hair up in part, because I really am NOT ashamed of my disability, but also because it helps me in the long run should I miss something someone says. They can immediately see that I “hear differently”. Many culturally Deaf are afraid that if those born deaf are implanted between the ages of 10 months and 2 years (indicative of the current trend) that their very culture is being threatened. Nine out of every 10 infants identified with hearing loss are born to hearing parents. These parents are often choosing the safe, non-invasive surgery of a cochlear implant to give their child the best opportunity at oral language. I don’t believe ASL is in any danger of becoming extinct, however, because there will always be Deaf children born to Deaf parents who chose ASL. The Deaf have worked long and hard for equal access and equal rights and have a rich history and long-term success at being identified as a culture.
I have been stopped in stores and handed notes by the Deaf asking why I would choose a cochlear implant. “What is wrong with Deaf?” I put the notes down and sign to them (making their eyes pop open wide), and explain that I was born with normal hearing and that my choice allowed me to continue to participate in the same way that I was born. Some get angry and stomp away, and some try to argue. Only one or two have ever said that I had a right to my choice and that they respect that. The vast majority of encounters were not “pretty”. Most encounters involve the middle finger! (from them… not me!) I’ll never forget waiting for my daughter at Pet Smart, and a Deaf couple stopped and pointed to me and began signing to their son (who was hearing I believe) that “sad, not right. people embrace ‘who they are’, God finish create – appreciate, accept”. I signed to the parents and little boy, that the only “shame” was when people could not make individual choices that they feel is in their own best interests and that choice be respected by others. (At least they had the grace to turn red).
Don’t get me wrong. I love ASL, and use it far more than many HoH people do. However ASL is not my native language. It is not the language of the group of Americans with hearing loss that I have chosen to identify myself with since losing my hearing.
Why are the oral deaf not as visible as the culturally Deaf?
The culturally Deaf have learned to stand up for their rights and have learned to be proud of who they are and accept it without reservation. The HoH crowd, however, tend to buy the hearing aid, and then refuse to even acknowledge they have a hearing loss. They often try to keep it hidden and rarely admit to someone that they may be struggling to hear in a poor listening environment. They may rarely disclose that they have a hearing loss at work, church, etc. They often do not identify with even having a disability. Why is this I wonder? HLAA and AGBell are wonderful organizations for those with hearing loss. Yet, the vast majority of members are those whose hearing loss has become so poor, that it has really begun to affect their lives. In desperation they reach out for the support and information that they need. I often wonder why those who have a mild to moderate loss never seek out organizations like this? I suppose it is because they “get by” just fine. If their hearing loss is not progressive, they choose to live life without the added help and membership of organizations like this. I cannot cast stones, for I did not seek out help until my hearing loss had reached the point that I needed help.
I was pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks ago, to attend an open-captioned Star Trek movie at our local theater. The room was packed, and I only saw a handful of people signing. I saw plenty of hearing aids and cochlear implants. I think it is so important to support showings of feature films with open-captioning. I always thank the theater manager in person or via email. Many in attendance were the hearing spouses, family or friends. My children have grown up with closed captioning, and actually have trouble watching television without it. I never have to twist arms to get my hearing family to attend an open-captioned movie. When you’ve distinct Russian accents and alien tongues in a movie like Star Trek, you can bet that those with normal hearing got more out of the movie thanks to open-captioning!
Many of the organizations who serve those who have a hearing loss and are oral are in financial difficulty. They’ve been that way for over a decade and with the current economy they aren’t due for a major influx of cash or membership. They often have difficulty obtaining grants. My personal opinion is that they should do a major overhaul in the way they reach out to those with hearing loss. They need to change the way they try to raise an interest in order to gain membership. The majority of people with hearing loss do not have a significant loss. These organizations certainly shouldn’t turn their backs on those with significant hearing loss, but new programs and ideas should center around how to raise awareness among those with a mild to moderate loss. Things like the hearing aid tax credit are a step in the right direction as everyone will appreciate some financial help for the expense of hearing aids. The only problem with this tax credit, is that it will be years before it is available to all age groups regardless of their health coverage. I believe more effort should be in providing information to this largely untapped group. What can be done to provide helpful information to this group? What programs can be developed to help them at work, church, and in public? I think if the struggling non-profits who are membership based reach out to this group, it will help to raise awareness. How could it not? The majority of those with hearing loss (those who are oral), will be finally identified as a cohesive group of individuals striving for equal access, and recognition. How do you help a group of people who want to remain invisible, to see the value in becoming a visible and active group? I don’t know the answers to these questions.
I sign when I misunderstand
Although I identify with the oral hearing loss community, I have something rather humorous to share. If I am trying to communicate with someone who has a heavy foreign accent, or with someone in a very poor listening environment (like a mall or restaurant), I tend to sign while I’m talking. It really tickles my kids, for I have tried to communicate with someone who only speaks Spanish and found that I started to sign and voice when I discovered I couldn’t understand them. My daughter has told me that she can tell it is totally unconscious, that she can see me just naturally start to sign when I cannot hear well or understand someone’s speech. My family has actually learned to step up to help when they see me signing as they know that I read their lips and “hear their voices” better. They know if I start signing, that I’m not hearing very well. Sometimes I sign when I’m really tired… fatigue causes me to not hear as well. I asked my husband (who has devoted six years of his life to the hearing loss community in the past) why he thinks it is that I sign when I’m not hearing well. He’s a psychologist and likes to be asked “what do you think?” He believes that it is not that I am switching identities or loyalties by starting to sign in a “pinch”. He thinks it’s a subconsious decision and acknowledgement that I’m not hearing well. He said that other HoH people who don’t hear well stop and say “huh?” or “fake it”. He said that because I know ASL, I start to sign. He’s stepped up to wide-eyed friends with normal hearing and simply said, “perhaps you should find a quieter place to talk… Denise is having trouble. See? She’s signing!”
I do wish the oral hearing loss community could erase the stigma associated with hearing loss. Would it be that we could develop a positive internal locus of control and believe that we are valuable and viable adults in spite of hearing loss. I wish… I wish we could REALLY find our voice.
© 2009 Hearing Loss Journal