A Prisoner of STIGMA

Tonight (4/19/17) is the 2nd annual d.A.M.N. event (disABILITY Memoirs and Notes) at Anne Arundel Community College. I was asked to share my presentation on Hearing Elmo.

PowerPoint: https://app.box.com/s/qkdo19k20djznhlpeezo7js24ik5f0mn

Presentation:

My name is Denise Portis and I teach Psychology courses here at AACC.

 

Thank you for coming to our 2nd annual d.A.M.N. event.

 

Today I want to talk to you about being a prisoner of STIGMA. I have been a disABILITY advocate for 25 years. It was not very difficult for me to reveal hearing loss and Meniere’s disease. However, the disability that had the greatest impact on me was mental illness, and THAT I chose to hide from everyone outside my immediate family.

 

SLIDE 2

 

What is a stigma? A stigma has SHAME attached to it. One source defines it as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance. If anything is well known for having a stigma associated with it, it is mental illness. I didn’t want my friends to know, my co-workers to know, my parents or siblings to know, or even my children to know until they were much older. I had become a prisoner of the stigma attached to mental illness without ever going to trial. Yet, I was as incarcerated as any person charged and tried.

 

SLIDE 3

 

I have struggled with depression and anxiety most of my adult life. I tried to hide it and even get help for it quietly, being careful not to reveal my diagnosis to anyone but those closest to me. I had heard that publicly owning it would follow me in my medical records. People would think I was unstable, unreliable, and needy. I had heard a number of accusatory and negative comments once I began choosing who I would disclose this to. I’m still surprised I didn’t allow early comments to zip my lips and go back into my jail cell, remaining a prisoner to the stigma. However, I began to experience real freedom in acknowledging what was wrong with me. That acknowledgment changed the wrong to right. For the first time I was able to understand what my diagnosis were. Mental illness is an illness. It isn’t chosen, it can be treated, and a victorious life could be mine, So I began to tell EVERYONE. It became a very real part of how I chose to be an advocate. For me, transparency worked.

 

SLIDE 4

 

And yet, throughout my determination to live free, I saw people who were given a death sentence because of their mental illness. Amy is one of my heroes. If you’ve heard of Project Semicolon, you’ve heard of the movement she began. Amy said about Project Semicolon, “In literature an author uses a semicolon to NOT end a sentence but to continue on. We see it as you are the author and your life is the sentence. You’re choosing to keep going”. Amy took her own life last month.

 

SLIDE 5

 

Luis Montalvan came to speak at AACC in 2015. Many of us in the SODA club even had our picture taken with him. Luis was a national and renowned speaker about PTSD and travelled with his service dog, Tuesday. Luis took his own life in December.

 

These two individuals were very open about their mental health disorders. Being open made a difference. Both actually found doors of opportunity available to them because of their openness. I have to tell you when I first heard about both of their deaths, I cried. I shed tears because I know what it is like to get really tired of facing a new day with mental illness. It is hard. Even though I have chosen to surround myself with people who accept me exactly as I am, even though I am open and honest about my disabilities and refuse to be a prisoner of stigma, I totally GET what it feels like to WANT to give up.

 

Are Amy and Luis cowards? Do I have something they do not? No, and NO. Their lives and their deaths simply act as a reminder to all of us that mental illness is HARD. The way I combat the hopelessness and the aloneness is by being open. I present my story and my choice simply as a way for you to examine if this will work for you. If stigma is crippling you and making you feel like a prisoner, you may want to consider a jailbreak.

 

SLIDE 6

 

Be vocal. Fight in the open. Insist on acceptance and understanding. You may not find it in your current group of friends and family. I’m not telling you that you should walk away from THEM. I am asking you to look for revealers. Look for people who do not shy away from the diagnosis, who have learned not to be ashamed nor captive to their illness. They are out there. They can be found.

 

SLIDE 7

 

At AACC the SODA club makes it easy. The group is committed to being assumption destroyers and helping to erase the stigma associated with all types of disabilities. Those that are visible and easily seen, and those that are invisible and are only known upon “reveal”. We call our group superheroes. Their super powers are different. Each have strengths and each work hard to make a difference in a superhero kind of way. If you are looking for a place to make a difference on campus and within your community, we invite you to be a part of SODA.


L. Denise Portis

© 2017 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Pretzels Baby…

Snyder's of Hanover Pretzels commercial 2016
Snyder’s of Hanover Pretzels commercial 2016

We do not have the opportunity to watch much live television in my house. My husband and I tape our favorite shows and then watch them together the couple of nights a week we are both home in the evenings. It worked out this summer, that I did not have a class to teach during the first session of the summer semester. The timing is terrific since I completed my doctoral coursework, and have now started the dissertation. There is a great deal of reading and writing involved at the beginning, so not having a class to teach until 7/1 is a “plus”.

In spite of all the groundwork needed to start the dissertation right, I have had some down time as well. Trying to catch up on my HGTV favorites before I’m back to teaching, I have been surprised by new commercials as Terry nor I watch commercials. The new Synder’s of Hanover pretzel commercial is unique. Well… it’s kind of scary too, but I’ll get to that.

Laura Wernette is the new “smoky-voiced pitchwoman”. I think she’s just scary. She has this intense, no-nonsense stare that reminds me of a grown-up Wednesday Addams.

Christina Ricci in Addams Family Values

I think what bothers me about the commercial (besides the fact they are not captioned – ahem) is that the woman in the advertisement has a facial expression that says one thing (I want to kill and maim you) while her voice is saying another (Synder’s pretzels are the best). From things I have read, the advertisement is popular and folks think the pretzel woman is pretty funny. I cannot justify what I see in her face to what I hear coming out of her mouth. I spend far too long thinking about it, believe me! It made me think about all the times I misunderstand someone’s mood when I choose to only look at their face.

My poor husband has a perpetual eyebrow grimace.

IMG_2843 IMG_2835

Even when he is smiling and relaxed, his eyes seem almost angry-looking if one didn’t know him better. When he speaks, he has this laid-back, southern charm and friendliness that (in my opinion) doesn’t “jive” with his facial expression. I tease him about it all the time. (Aren’t I sweet?)

I think one of the things that is most difficult for someone new to hearing loss, is learning to look at the whole picture before jumping to conclusions. It can be hard to try to make sense of what you can actually hear, and match it up with what you think you are seeing on a person’s face or in their body language. (It’s impossible to do when you know and love someone who is fluent is the language of SARCASM, and the voice and pitch deliberately DO NOT match what is on the person’s face).

My best practice is to simply to ask for clarification when needed. If someone’s voice (as heard with my bionic ear, with some limitations on inflection, pitch, and tone) does not match up with what I see on the person’s face, I just ASK.

“Could you clarify for me what you are trying to say? You seem upset, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions”

“You seem really calm, but you practically growled that out to me. Is everything OK?”

I was at a residency this past March and the weather was beautiful. I spent every spare moment outside walking Milo (along with everyone else on break in between workshops). One afternoon, I stopped to answer some questions about Milo to a group of ladies I had been with in several workshops. I noticed the three women all scowling. I tried to pay attention to what they were saying, and occasionally they laughed as well. I had trouble concentrating on their WORDS because their faces were scowling – and looked angry. After a few minutes trying to figure out why their facial expressions were not matching what I was hearing, I realized the sun was in their eyes! With that epiphany, I quickly changed my body position with the comment… “Here. Let me move so the sun isn’t in y’all’s eyes”.

I could have silently freaked out wondering what in the world their problem was. It took me a few minutes, but I finally realized why I was having trouble understanding their mood when their faces were all sun-squinty angry. Small wonder that hearing loss is considered a communication disorder! Especially if you have an acquired hearing loss, learning to communicate without one of the major cues (hearing), can be difficult.

My proximity to Johns Hopkins University Hospital, allows me to mentor folks who are seeking cochlear implantation to restore hearing. One of the questions I am always asked during these meetings is, “What has been the hardest thing for YOU about acquiring hearing loss later in life?” I’m guessing the frequency of the question points to the desire most people have to see similarities in their own struggles. When I explain that having to ask for clarification was a necessary, but difficult thing to learn to do, the people I am meeting with seem so relieved. Some even say, “Oh gosh, it is so good to hear someone else say that! Does it ever get easier?”

It does. That always seems to give them some hope as well.

You are still going to have frustrating moments of confusion. I am 11 years post-op and I believe “hear again” with some level of confidence. I still make mistakes. I may misinterpret tone and intentions, or I may not catch that there has been a complete subject change in the conversation (something I’m rather famous for, if I do say so myself!). As with any acquired disability or life change, in time and with lots of practice, YOU WILL ADAPT. Part of that adaptation will be in recognizing that at times you are going to blow it, but it does not de-rail all the progress you’ve made to date. We can be extremely hard on ourselves! Everyone makes mistakes – even people without acquired disability or challenges.

Denise Portis

© 2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

 

Misinterpreting

Misinterpreting

I haven’t had a chance to talk about Chloe, my retired service dog, much lately. The sweet ol’ lady has been retired full-time since May 2015. Chloe has not had a good year. Being together 9 1/2 years, means she was pretty set in her ways as to being with Denise 24/7. So if you take a loyal, hard-working hound dog who has done the same thing for almost a decade, retire her, bring a new dog into the pack who is now Denise’s partner, move to a new house, and have only a few things to do around the house for hearing alerts, a dog can just go a little nuts… which is what Chloe has done. Chloe is on arthritis medicine, which helps her arthritis a great deal. Being able to get around more comfortably means she is looking for stuff to do around the house. Chloe has developed an anxiety disorder, which could be the result of a number of things including age. She obsesses over things she decides is her job and continues until collapse.

We moved into a wonderful, older home, with NO STEPS! I fall once a week now instead of 2-3 times a day. Even for our two older dogs, Chloe and family dog, Tyco, the fact that we have no stairs is a plus as well! Our older home makes noises that our other home did not. We have an older HVAC system, gas heat and stove, a wood-pellet stove, and older wood floors. Chloe, retired hearing dog, believes every new sound she hears now is her JOB. So she will stand over heating vents and guard because there are strange noises coming from them. (We have checked for critter invasion, had the home inspected, etc., and this is truly just mechanical noises. The other dogs ignore the sounds completely). Chloe will stand “working” until her legs shake and she collapses. We were having trouble getting her to eat. A major vet appointment that included blood-work, scans, and over-all senior check-up, revealed nothing that would make us worry that this is anything other than an anxiety disorder. Chloe is OCD. She misinterprets what she is hearing and together with her other keen senses (like smell), seeks out the origin of the strange sound and does a perfect hunting dog “point”,  standing guard until she collapses.

Chloe is on meds and is doing better. She still guards shadows and obsesses over household noises. We are making it a priority for her to get out of the house more and “do things for mom and dad”. My husband and I discuss hound dog a great deal. She really means a lot to both of us. We know and understand the difficult changes she has had to shoulder, but also understand that she is hearing things well (she is a DOG and was trained as a hearing assistance dog)… only Chloe is misinterpreting what she hears.

The sounds are not important – but Chloe is escalating the sounds as a priority.

The sounds are harmless – but Chloe considers some of them a threat.

The sounds are minor “blips on the radar” – but Chloe equates them with cardiac arrest.

Misinterpreting

Have you ever completely misunderstood what someone said or misunderstood the behavior of someone?

WHAT? You mean you always assume correctly? Ok. Well you can quit reading. The rest of you feel free to continue…

As a person with hearing loss, I often misunderstand what people say. I work hard to consider the context, facial expression, and body language of someone speaking and I still BLOW IT sometimes.

Someone can yawn and cover their mouth and I will completely lose track of what they were saying.

My cochlear implant can pick up some random, ambient noise and I will miss what someone said.

I’ve even stood in the sunshine with someone while they squinted and wrinkled their eyebrows at the bright light, and missed that they were being sarcastic about something because their face looked MEAN.

I use email a great deal. If I have my phone out, it is to TEXT, not to talk earlobe to earlobe with someone. Because I do a great deal of writing, when I am misunderstood or misinterpreted in an email, it really hurts. I work hard at making what I write sound like what I SAY. That’s why y’all have to muddle through my exclamations and grammatical errors that emphasize how I would SPEAK something. (So thanks for that – <wink>).

Basically in misinterpreting… there are two scenarios. Either WE are being misinterpreted, or we are the one over-reacting and obsessing over unimportant cues. So what’s a person to do?

  1. You are being misinterpreted.

If you are being constantly misinterpreted, is it your problem or their problem? Really the responsibility goes both ways. If you are constantly being misunderstood, however, take a good hard look at the who, what, when and where.

Who: Do the same people always misunderstand? Maybe they are extra sensitive. Maybe they haven’t learned to see past the obvious to what you really meant. Are you sarcastic? Do you know some people just don’t GET sarcasm? They don’t appreciate it, don’t use it, and are constantly hurt by it.

My husband, son, and daughter speak fluent sarcasm. As a person with hearing loss, I had come to count on what I SAW when communicating. I finally had to explain, “Look y’all! Give me a smirk, eye roll, or something! If you don’t, you are gonna get smacked up ‘side the head!” I just don’t connect with sarcasm.

What is being misunderstood? Is it a subject others are passionate about? Is it a subject that is highly debated? (Is it an election year? <groan>) Are you being clear?

When are you being misunderstood? Is everyone tired? Are you being misinterpreted when everyone is rushed? Late?

Where are you being misunderstood? A friend told me once that she has learned not to talk about serious things during happy hour at a local bar. <grin>

Figuring these things out can be helpful and allow you to determine how you can be misinterpreted LESS.

2. You misinterpret others.

Especially because one of my “differently-abled” quirks is hearing loss, if I misunderstand someone I become rude. Not rude-rude, but interrupting rude. I stop whomever is speaking and ask for clarification. I may say:

A) I’m sorry, could you repeat that?

B) Excuse me… I thought I heard you say…     …  could you repeat that part?

These “rude” but necessary interruptions help me misunderstand and misinterpret LESS. If I wait to ask for clarification I may forget (but stay mad), or the person themselves may forget what they said.

What about if you are angered or hurt by something that someone WROTE? I still ask for clarification. Maybe even though I am searching the context or doing my best to “read between the lines”, I’m still missing something. There is nothing wrong with responding (better done in a private manner and not in a public venue) and asking for clarification. I don’t know about you, but I’ve written things before that were taken wrong and it wasn’t until someone asked for clarification that I realized how harsh something I wrote seemed to the people who were reading it.

texting

Sometimes? Sometimes people are just going to try really hard to misunderstand what you wrote too. It happens. I’ve learned to pick my battles. You cannot always expect someone to look for the best in you. Some folks look for the bad. Just drop it and go on.

being misunderstood

Change really isn’t hard

One of my offspring is a debater. The kid can argue the paint off a wall. It use to really bother me, but I never wanted to say “shut up, already”! I never wanted to act as if their opinion held no merit. I had to learn to LISTEN. Do you know my kid actually has a lot of really wonderful ideas, points, and opinions about the world? I drove him to lunch the other day and because we were each other’s “captive audience”, I got him all to myself for 20 minutes. My kid is more informed about politics than I am. If I LISTEN I have discovered he has a lot to say.

I use to misinterpret what he said all the time. I had to change. I couldn’t take sound bite snippets and judge him for being a ninny-hammer based on one comment. I had to learn to listen “in context” and wait until he had finished speaking before agreeing, or agreeing to disagree.

Some of you may be thinking… “why should *I* have to change the way I communicate?” Communication is the glue that holds all relationships together. No one communicates perfectly. We can all brush up on better communication skills.

Last week I was asking some questions about a video we watched and trying to get the students to “think like a scientist”. I saw a student grimace and shake their head. I stopped and said, “It’s fine if you don’t agree! I welcome everyone’s opinion and think it is important to express various views! Do you have another opinion about what we saw?”

They looked startled for a minute and sheepishly admitted, “No. I was making a face because someone farted”.

Oh.

You aren’t always going to understand perfectly. You are going to misunderstand facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. You, yourself, are going to contradict what you are saying by how you look or how you are saying it once in awhile.

My encouragement to all of us is simply to work harder. We can all learn to communicate clearly, hopefully creating less chance of being misunderstood. Communication matters because people matter. If you are a person with a disability or chronic illness, work hard at communicating your needs – and what you don’t need. It is much easier to “do your part” and then walk away in the face of persistent misunderstanding, than it is to share the blame for not having tried at all.

Denise Portis

© 2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

 

Embracing It!

"So... tell me the truth. How does this look?" (Terry) "Baby? You are rockin' that helmet!"
“So… tell me the truth. How does this look?” (Terry) “Baby? You are rockin’ that helmet!”

I believe that there are very legitimate reasons for people who choose to keep invisible disabilities invisible. I respect their choice and their reasons for doing so. In many circumstances, it makes “good sense” and isn’t at all about vanity or shame.

I am “all out there” for lack of a better way to put it. In my profession, in my life, in the community service arenas I’m involved in, and for personal safety reasons, making my invisible disabilities – visible is the right thing to do.

I wear bling on my implant. I think it is fun. It puts a smile on my face. I’m so SO thrilled to be hearing again. The progression of my hearing loss took 12 painful years. I was completely deaf for almost two, silently researching and investigating cochlear implants. I’m so proud to be hearing again. Some say I’m flaunting it. Ummm…

YEAH.

If you do not want to bring attention to disabilities, do not ever choose to be partnered with a service dog. Even though our dogs are taught to be nearly invisible (and don’t you know folks are always startled when I get up to leave restaurants because they had no clue my dog was there?), when you walk through a store or into a doctor’s office, your service dog will bring attention to the fact that “something is different about you”. It has been a very long time since working dogs were only trained to be guide dogs. There are diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, autism dogs, PTSD service dogs, mobility assist dogs, balance assist dogs, alzheimer assist dogs, hearing assistance dogs, and the list goes on! My service dog makes me more independent. I don’t have to ask for help nearly as often. I don’t miss things (sounds my CI won’t pick up), and I’m confident and more safe. But choosing to have a service dog will bring attention to you.

When my Meniere’s disease worsened, I finally realized that 3-5 falls a week were too many. When I have my cane, I stumble maybe 3-4 times a week, but rarely go all the way down. I average only 2-3 falls a month now. I have three canes. They are bright, bold, and beautiful. I don’t try to hide that I carry a cane with me.

I love to be outside. Perhaps it’s the “farm girl” in me, but I love to be outside and love to walk. Just because I have a balance disorder does not mean that I am going to stop walking. Yet… I seemed to have trouble doing it safely. Even with cane and service dog, I was still taking tumbles when the roads or sidewalks were bad. Winter is my favorite season. I love snow, love ice, love “visible breath” in the air… but I have had some bad winters, 3 years in a row. As a matter of fact, when perusing my medical records with my neurologist, I was averaging 2 concussions each year, usually in Winter months. My last mild concussion was March 8th. I have a follow up with my neuro the first week of May. At the last appointment, he said, “You know. You need a helmet for when you walk!”

I laughed and said, “all my friends tell me I need to be wrapped in bubble wrap or need to wear a helmet.”

He looked at me eye-ball to eye-ball and said, “You don’t understand. I’m being serious. You CANNOT continue having concussions”.

Oh.

OH.

NO FREAKING WAY!

I sat there a little stunned for a minute but then began to consider the possibilities. I’m not afraid of what people think. I don’t care about what is fashionable – heck I consider myself a “disability-advocate fashion expert”. But could I embrace a helmet for walking when road and sidewalk conditions were bad?

I decided that yes… Yes, I could!

So I started researching, (cuz, yeah, that’s what I do) and found the helmet I wanted. I was crazy ecstatic that it is called a … “Brainsaver“! Ain’t it great? *BEAMS*

Triple 8 Brainsaver Rubber helmet with Liner in Rasta Yellow
Triple 8 Brainsaver Rubber helmet with Liner in Rasta Yellow

I blinged up the helmet with some of my favorite stickers, (I’m a nut for daisies), and now I’m all set for walking. I even fixed the liner where my cochlear implant magnet had a little place to “rest” inside so it would not get pushed off.

I realize my approach to MY LIFE may not work for you. However, I love embracing who I am and holding my head high. I want to be an example to others, but I certainly know and understand that it is “different strokes for different folks”.

I hope I can report this time next year that I haven’t sustained any new concussions. Yay for me, and yay for neurologists who push to get their patients to take their brains seriously.

Denise Portis

© 2015 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Change and Control

change for the better

I’m not a big fan of change. So when faced with a year that is sure to be chock-full of change, I can feel a little overwhelmed. Ok. That’s actually not true.

I can feel freaking terrified, sick to my stomach, near panic attack, bite my nails to the quick, SOMEONE LET ME OFF THIS MERRY-GO-ROUND called life screaming, “abandon ship! abandon ship!”

I’m not even a spontaneous person. My family knows not to ever throw me a “surprise” party. To me ordinary is extraordinary. I just hate change. For me, it’s all about control. That’s right. I’m a bit of a control freak. There is an upside to being a control freak. I am very organized. I’m punctual and responsible. There are, however, all kinds of negative things that come from being a control freak and refusing to accept change too.

I had fairly significant OCD tendencies throughout my childhood and into my early 20’s. As a teen, I developed bulimia nervosa after facing my first big change moving away from home to go to college. Emotionally, I drove some people bananas with my need to control and drove some people AWAY as a young adult.

If you believe everything happens for a REASON and that there is a life lesson to be learned in everything that occurs, one could hypothesize that my developing acquired disabilities was the best (worst) thing to ever happen to me! My hearing loss began at the age of 25 and was a progressive loss. I wasn’t completely deaf until the age of 32 so I had a long time to adjust and cope. Meniere’s disease was diagnosed at the age of 35, though I suspect I had it from my early 20’s. It, too, became progressively worse over time; in part, because of multiple mild concussions. My health issues forced me to change. To remain independent (something I discovered was extremely important to me), I found that I had to work hard at adapting. I had to embrace change instead of shy away from it or pretend it wasn’t happening.

Living with acquired disabilities means something CHANGED. You have to adjust. You have to make choices about how you will cope and how you will treat the diagnosis or disorder. You have to determine how you enlist others to assist – if at all. What adaptive equipment or technologies are available to mitigate the disability? How are you going to mentally and emotionally adjust? (For acquired disability or illness never occurs without having an impact in other areas of WHO you are…)

At the age of 48, I have lived more of my life adjusting to my new limitations than I did to living in a relatively “worry free” life. Here are some things about change that I have learned.

1. Take notice of changes.

This means you have to really get to know yourself. Habitually take your own “pulse” and see how you are doing. Make note of the readings on your “tension thermometer”. How are you sleeping? How are your relationships?

You don’t want change to take you by surprise. One must deliberately brace and expect changes. Be on the look out. Identify health (or mental health) changes.

2. Accept change with a positive attitude.

You cannot stop change, nor control it, but you can change how you react to change. We’ve all see the serenity prayer before. For those of us with acquired disability or illness, however, following these words of wisdom can be very freeing.

God … grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

3. Learn to relax. 

Even up-tight control freaks can learn to relax. One of the most important things I learned in vestibular rehab was how to relax when falling. We naturally stiffen up and become tense when we are “on our way down”. I learned to relax my leg muscles so that I immediately dropped to my caboose instead of falling like a tree cut off at the base.

I have also learned to take “me time” every single day and refuse to feel guilty for taking the time to do so. It may be something as simple as looking through a friend’s collection of photographs. It may mean some personal journal time. I might choose to read a good book – that has nothing to do with psychology or my dissertation. I may burn my favorite candle while cuddling with my assistance dog on the floor in the dark.

4. Ask for help.

It took me so long to learn that it didn’t make me weak to ask for help. I chose to be partnered with an assistance dog so that I didn’t have to ask for as MUCH help from other people. In spite of this life-changing decision, I still occasionally have to ask for help. When I do, I don’t apologize first.

“I’m sorry to have to ask you this, but could you help me? I’m so sorry. I hate asking for help, but do need your assistance. I’m sorry I’m bothering you!”

Please don’t ask for help like this. It’s rather pathetic, isn’t it? Yet, we tend to react to even THINKING about help as if asking is something to apologize for when doing the asking. Honestly, most people are glad to help.

If you really have problems asking for assistance, at least learn to ask others “how can I do this task independently?” Brain storm with OTHERS what you can do to remain independent. I have run completely out of ideas about how to do something safely, only to discover through someone ELSE a “brilliant” work-around.

5. You are changing, but you are still You.

Frankly, all of us change as we grow older. The changes may occur physically, emotionally, or mentally. Yes, change may seem more difficult when it occurs as the result of acquired disability or chronic illness, but ya know something? You are actually stronger for it. You had to adjust and perhaps been forced to make changes. The core of who you are does not change. We tend to fear that being “disabled” becomes our new identity. No one signs up for that, and it is never chosen. So when it happens… know that who you are hasn’t changed. If anything you become a better version of you.

One of my favorite quotes about change was written by John Eliot. “As soon as anyone starts telling you to be “realistic,” cross that person off your invitation list.” We can’t avoid negative people. They will cross our path. They will see our being differently-abled as license to give-up and quit. They’ll tell us to be realistic and stop aspiring for “more”. You may not be able to avoid these morons people, but you don’t have to hang out with them on purpose.

So I gear up for a big year of changes for me. I’ll be finishing up my coursework in school, retiring my assistance dog, and face some possible surgery. Those all seem so darn negative, but there’s always two sides to every “coin”. My dissertation awaits – and geesh, but do I love to write or don’t I? I’m retiring Chloe, but I have my close-knit Fidos For Freedom family and friends supporting me with a successor dog eventually entering my life. I hate surgery, but really look forward to getting to the bottom of some of the neurological issues I’ve been having. I can identify and sense these impending changes with a weird sort of relief. I have discovered that change can be good. Relinquishing control can be freeing.

Denise Portis

© 2015 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

As You Wish…

blog as you wish

I’m a HUGE “Princess Bride” fan. Perhaps I’m even classified as being an “annoying Princess Bride fan“. I know so many of the lines by heart and they tend to slip out in both opportune and inopportune moments. If you’ve never seen the movie – for shame. Seriously, it is one of those ridiculous movies that everyone needs to see at least once. You will be talking about it for the rest of your life. I promise.

One of the best known (and faithfully repeated) lines of the movie is that of our hero, Westley. He says, “As you wish…” to his beloved, Buttercup, (hey… I can’t make this up) to genteelly and sweetly acquiescence to her every request. Yup. This makes him a bit of a sap. But he does become the “Dread Pirate Roberts” later and reveals to Buttercup, that he is still her “Westley” in this dramatic (and hysterical scene):

In the end, we learn that “trewww lub” (true love) is worth fighting for and that we should be careful about agreeing for the sake of keeping the peace. Well… at least that is ONE “moral of the story” I got out of this favorite! 🙂

When People with Disabilities Keep the Peace

We’ve all heard how important it is to have the right attitude when you are advocating for your own rights or needs, or on behalf of another. “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar“.

Trust me.

I know how hard this can be at times. Having had it drilled into my head, I am fully aware that how the public interacts with ME, may influence how they interact with another who has hearing loss, balance disorders, or a service dog in the future. That “burden” keeps my mouth shut when I strive to bite my tongue. But ya know something?

Sometimes when my attitude says, “As you wish…“, I’m really only hurting myself AND others.

About a month ago, I was walking with a colleague to a meeting in another building. We had to walk through the Student Union bldg., and then go to the second floor. We were talking as we walked. My colleague turned to go up a 20-step flight of stairs… still talking.

I hesitated and said, “the elevator is up the hallway…” and my friend interrupted and said, “Come on! We need the exercise!” She continued up the stairs and was still talking.

I put Chloe is a close heel, looped my cane over my wrist, grabbed the handrail and took one careful step at a time, all the while with a death grip on Chloe’s handle attached to her vest. By silently agreeing, I practically shouted, “As you wish…

I can’t talk and climb stairs, so I quietly made my way up the stairs one careful step at a time. When I got to the top of the stairs, I exhaled heavily (for it seems I was holding my breath), and looked up with a triumphant grin. My smile immediately faded because my friend stood there with big tears in her eyes. My brain started processing sound again (for it had been wholly fixed on arriving ALIVE at the top of the stairs), and I belatedly picked up some of her words…

For heaven’s sake, why didn’t you remind me you can’t do stairs? All you had to do was remind me!

I was struck dumb (silent – not mentally – grin) for a second and said, “Well I was just keeping the peace!

She said, “You keep the peace by reminding me what your needs are. That’s not keeping the peace, that’s being a martyr. Just tell me!

I apologized (profusely).

We can remind people what we can, and cannot do safely without sounding as if we are complaining. We need to learn to be pro-active in a positive, upbeat way. Don’t apologize for who you are or for what your needs are. However, be careful not to agree to something foolhardy like climbing a set of stairs when there is an elevator right up the hallway. My attitude of “As you wish…” could have set the scene for a disaster that day. Thankfully, it did not.

“Shove it up your… “

There are times when people with disabilities need to actually be a little more firm when they are educating or advocating. I don’t always do this well. I try to even interrupt my rising temper by reminding myself that I represent “Fidos For Freedom, Inc.“, and “Anne Arundel County’s Commission on Disabilities“. I chant in my head, “Bite your tongue, bite your tongue”. It doesn’t always work. The phrase, “shove it up your… NOSE” (scared ya a minute, didn’t I – wink), reverberates in my head.

Monday, I stopped at the U.S. Post Office to purchase some stamps for Christmas cards. (Yes, I’m aware I’m late to this “party”). I saw a man leaning against the building, smoking. I sort of register this in order to use the door farthest from him because I cannot stand the smell of cigarette smoke. As I exited my car, I reached in and got my cane, closed the door… opened the back door to unload Chloe, adjusted her vest and leash, closed HER door and then turned to walk into the building.

It seems we had an audience.

The man leaning against the building said, “What a beautiful guide dog! My mother is almost blind now. Where did you get your dog?

I was so startled I stutter-stepped and screeched to a stop. I know my mouth was hanging open. I looked over my shoulder at my car. I pointedly looked at the car keys in my hands. I looked at Chloe and her visible vest that said “Service Dog” with tags that said, “Hearing Dog. Do not Distract”.

Then I made a mistake. I blurted. Nothing ever goes well when I blurt.

Is that nicotine or weed you are smoking?

His eyes got big. He stomped out his cigarette and stomped into the building. Then this little convo/prayer went through my head:

Ok God. I blew that. If I find that man in the building please give me the opportunity to apologize and make that right. But… please don’t let me find him because I swear he’s stupid and higher than a kite!

Yeah. It seems I can’t pray with the right attitude right after a ridiculous encounter either.

But ya know something? There ARE times when it is ok to put someone in their place. Especially if someone repeatedly makes the same comment or observation about you or people with disabilities. You can be firm and be kind.

I didn’t tell the “smoker”, “As you wish…” with an attitude that what he said made perfect sense. However, I could have reminded him that a person with vision loss would not have just pulled into the parking lot and got out of the vehicle. I could have educated him quickly and politely that there are numerous types of service dogs and canes. Instead, I was a smart aleck. Justified? Perhaps. However, in the end, I didn’t promote any “cause” or advocate in a positive way.

So Where is the HAPPY MEDIUM?

If you have lived with invisible illness or disability long enough, you DO eventually learn how to balance all of this. You learn how to remind those who have known you long enough that they may have forgotten some of your limitations. You speak up for yourself. You also learn when to firmly, but kindly, put someone in their place. There is a time for that as well.

You are going to make mistakes. Your attitude will scream, “As you wish…” at times when you simply need to say, “I can’t and won’t attempt that“. You are also going to learn to not label someone a pothead, and instead take 60 seconds to educated them in a positive way. It’s a balance we all eventually learn.

If you haven’t seen, “Princess Bride” – you are missing a treat. 🙂 I hope all of us who are differently-abled, learn to balance how to advocate and educate others.

Denise Portis

© 2014 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Everything you ever wanted your audiologist to know…

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Hearing Elmo always welcomes guest authors. Although this site is a place of information and support for all types of disabilities and invisible illnesses, once in awhile an author has a very specific “hearing” topic. I know few individuals with more consumer experience with hearing loss advocacy and support than Judy Martin. She is my friend as well and fellow “heartstring” (a long story). If you have a good working relationship with your audiologist, this is a great article to pass along! 

Everything you ever wanted your audiologist to know . . .

Late last year, the Florida Academy of Audiologists (FLAA) and the Hearing Loss Association of Florida (HLA-FL) formally agreed to a partnership to encourage a fuller understanding of each other. Articles are planned for each other’s newsletters; Noel Crosby, my counterpart in FLAA, suggested my topic describe what consumers would like their audiologists to know.

– Judy G. Martin, Immediate Past President)

As I stand in front of my imaginary class, I’m aware that all the people in attendance have some degree of hearing loss. Some use hearing aids, cochlear implants or assistive listening devices. Many proudly display their multi-colored devices while others are more discreet – each according to their needs, wishes, or personality. We are brought together by one commonality, though, the desire to hear better. For some, it is an old journey, and for others a newly-begun one.

This class may be the figment of my imagination, but it is filled with real people from around the country. Inspired by one person’s remark of what the perfect audiologist would be like (thank you, Paul), I ask “students” to discuss how their provider could be the most helpful as far as their hearing loss is concerned. (Of course, we would be willing to know how we can be the perfect consumer, a subject for another time.)

Paul, from Michigan, speaks up first and says his idea of perfection would be the audi who is knowledgeable about Hearing Assistance Technology (HAT); about the t-coil and the ways it can be used; and at least some familiarity with Bluetooth and FM; and where to find products to assist with telephone, cell phones, TV, meetings and communication. If a hearing loop is set up in the office, he would be able to hear the receptionist. If not a loop, then a willingness to let him make and confirm appointments via e-mail. This perfect person would be compassionate and willing to share information about the ADA, hearing loss groups, and hearing loss counselors. Many first-time hearing aid users are at the beginning of a scary learning curve and in a vulnerable position. And finally, he or she could be proactive in helping him to understand the fitting and adjustment process.

Jimm, who lives in New York, has a short and sweet idea: his audiologist would make the perfect earmold!

Having a receptionist who doesn’t whisper is the fond wish of Betty, from Delaware. Soft- spoken office workers, or those who don’t face the patient, strike terror in the hearts of those with hearing loss. Hearing loss-related news and magazines (especially, ahem, the HLAA Hearing Loss Magazine) would be quite beneficial when placed in the offices of audiologists and ENTs.

Sarah, Illinois, agrees that hearing loss information and magazines are so important in addition to helping find outside support groups. She also wishes that audiologists were affiliated with HLAA or a local chapter. Sarah suggests that attendance at an HLAA Convention would be beneficial as it is totally patient-oriented, in that everything is seen from the viewpoint of the consumer. She believes a little more explanation of what to expect when purchasing a hearing aid is something that would be helpful to her or knowing the importance of adjustments. (A journal kept by the consumer would be helpful here, making notes on what noises are bothersome, which need to have volume increased or decreased.)

Making sure that every hearing aid, unless it’s too small, leaves the audi’s office with a manual t-coil included. Since the t-coil can at least double the benefits of the aid, Germaine, a resident of Florida, says it’s important it have a volume control. Automatic volume control works well in many cases, but too often the experienced user wants and needs to override the control – a combination of both would be good. All that said, since t-coils are used with phones, both landline and cell, looping technology, FM, Bluetooth and other assistive listening technology, no self-respecting hearing aid should leave home without it. She hopes that the hearing instrument provider’s office will have copies of HLAA’s consumer checklist for purchasing hearing aids.

Laura, in New Jersey, agrees and also wishes that the importance of manual t-coils be uppermost in everyone’s mind.

Jennifer, from Pennsylvania, wishes the idea of hiding hearing aids was not promoted because it adds to the perceived stigma. Advertising which promises invisible hearing aids works at cross-purposes with HLAA’s mission to provide awareness of our invisible disability. She also thinks that more familiarity with the BAHA device for persons with single-sided deafness will guide those for whom the traditional aids won’t work.

Richard, who resides in Florida, believes a high number of hearing aid consumers are not conversant in discussing or understanding their own audiograms. Much of the relevant information available is written on a level beyond the comprehension of some consumers. Perhaps a brochure or flyer could be created to explain to all so they would understand their own degree of hearing loss and become audiogram literate!

From Montana, Tamie seconds the motion that professionals be educated about the importance of t-coils. She reached that conclusion when a new audi in town donated headphones for those with hearing loss to a local live theater. They were the kind which required the removal of one’s hearing aids.

Audiologists provide an invaluable service in the treatment of hearing loss, says Ed from Florida, but he wishes there was more proactivity in the education and advocacy process. It would be so helpful for the audiologist to initiate a discussion about hearing loops, captioning, cell phone usage or the Hearing Loss Association of America. Suggesting to new patients, who obviously need support, that they try a local HLAA chapter would help eliminate much bewilderment. It would be desirable for audiologists to take the lead on important advocacy missions such as being the first to install a loop in their offices. He goes on to say that since so much of his support comes from HLAA and other outside sources, he wishes treatment could be seen as a team sport because so much support is needed.

Also from Florida, Joan thinks audiologists could tell patients they need an aid large enough to accommodate t-coils even though the user may think differently. Spending time explaining why this tiny device is so important and how some of the applications of the t-coil will benefit the user is greatly needed. Hearing in noise and recruitment are two major problems professionals can explain in laymen’s terms even before the patient is troubled by them. If audis sell equipment such as FM and Bluetooth systems, it is imperative they be able to instruct patients in their effective use. Finally, Joan wishes that professionals would tell users about HLAA and the availability of a local chapter. She doesn’t believe that any audiologist today is unaware of the value of support groups for their patients.

Judy from Ohio said her ideal audiologist would keep current with the latest news and devices. She suggests joining a consumer online forum to learn what’s on the mind of people who have hearing loss. Judy sent her hubby (a newbie) off to have his hearing tested and when he inquired about t-coils at her behest, he was told that “they are not being used much any more because people are getting away from that.”

Cheryl, who lives in Florida, takes a different tack and says consumers should realize it takes patience and perseverance to use a hearing aid and a good result comes from numerous adjustments. Hearing aid users should not put their aids on the shelf or in a drawer as they need to be used daily. She also believes the consumer should know about the t-coil, how it works and where it works.

California resident, Cindy, hopes the high cost of her devices would include minor technical service, adjustments and guidance for a specific period of time. She would appreciate the audis being knowledgeable about the products they sell and being able offer instructions about warranties. She’d like it if the professional would listen to her, ask her questions and know that, in her eyes, they are as important in her life as her primary care physician or her eye doctor. After being successfully fitted, Cindy would like repairs to be made as quickly as possible even if returning them to the manufacturer is required.

Programming aids according to the user’s needs and real world feedback, not factory- recommended settings, is the wish of Tamara, who lives in Texas. She hopes they will take the time to share their knowledge about t-coils and the less expensive non-proprietary assistive listening technology. Further, she would like to be instructed about financial assistance, payment/ financing options and government assistance programs. To her, it would be extremely beneficial to offer listening therapy, living-with-hearing-loss classes, education for spouses and family members in addition to giving advice on support groups which would address the social and emotional factors.

My imaginary class ends on a high note with everyone agreeing that hearing loss professionals cannot be all things to all people. They believe that most audiologists are already well-rounded in their knowledge and possess a willingness to help. These suggestions are offered in hope that they might help fill in the gaps.

by: Judy Schefcick Martin