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What's That You Say?
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The Spectator
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 by Laramie Boyd
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C
        Five or six years ago, I decided to go in for a hearing test. I was getting tired of saying "Huh?", and my family was even more aggravated that they were having to repeat themselves over and over. Of course I needed to go in for the test ten years ago, but it took me a while to get used to the idea that I might have to have some ugly looking devices hanging down from my ears. My vanity was at stake and I didn't wanted give it up any sooner than was absolutely necessary. Believe me, it had come to that point, so I finally made the appointment that I knew would bring me back from the loneliness of a world filled with a lot of silent conversations, to the world of sound.
        After being fitted with a hearing aid in each ear, my environment began to take on a little more welcome feeling. Sounds I hadn't heard for years took on a greater importance in my life. Silence was much farther away than it used to be. When I first came home from the fitting, and sat down in front of the TV, I heard a noise that sounded like a stack of dished had fallen out of the cupboard. It turned out to be the ice cubes falling into the tray in the refrigerator. That was a wake up call. After that, background noises played a huge role in my day to day life.
        My audio specialist who had installed my hearing aids told me "I was a tough nut crack." I wasn't just a little hard of hearing. I was very impaired. I soon realized that the increase in my ability to hear and recognize sounds with the hearing aids was not as good as I had hoped for. This was especially true when I was in group situations, like in a restaurant, trying to carry on a discussion. I heard the sounds alright, but due to the many back ground conversations and dishes rattling, the clarity and meaning of the words were often impossible to decipher. All too often it was the old, "Huh, what was that?" routine, or some other request I made to get clarification of what had been said. And that's the way it is.
        Soon I began to see and understand more clearly the problems of being hard of hearing. The hearing aids did not bring back what had been lost. They did improve on the silence, but in no way was hearing the same. And it became clear that, for the most part, I wasn't going to be able to expect the people I was talking with to accommodate my handicap. For me to be able to take full advantage of the hearing aids, ideally, I wanted others to look at me when they spoke, talk a bit louder than usual, be at a reasonably close range to me, and above all, if I had a particularly hard time understanding what they said, the last thing I wanted to hear was, in a loud and agitated voice, "Turn up your hearing aids, old man" or "What are you, deaf or something?"
        Also, I notice even family and close friends at times will use criticism, or sometimes almost angry impatience over having to repeat what they say, as though I somehow have control over my disability. They often become impatient, and resort to mimicking, in a sarcastic tone, "What's that you say?" And after awhile, I get the feeling that maybe I'll never be able to fit in during simple conversations. Different people have varied volume levels of speaking, and different degrees of clarity in words, and won't, or can't, change their speech patterns just because someone in the group is partially deaf. That someone being me. And should I expect them to? If all I hear is mumbling, sometimes I even resort to simply smiling, nodding and acting like I heard every word the person said.
        So, as a person with a hearing handicap, it will be my job to decide how to handle family and social gatherings. Visiting one on one, in the quiet of my den, usually is not a problem. Even then, sometimes, the person I'm talking with will change their sound levels so much so, usually at the end of their sentences, that I can't make out what they say. So often, when friends, or even family, are having a conversation, they don't include me in. Sometimes, they act as though I'm not even in the room. And that is a humbling, heart breaking experience. Again, I can't expect everyone around me to change the way they communicate.
        I just have to get my act together, and be ready to encounter situations where I can't expect to join in conversations. I'll have to decide which social functions I attend, with a mind towards not making people fill ill at ease around me when I don't join in on the small talk. In other words, it's up to me to find a way that is comfortable for me and not uncomfortable to others, in an effort to respect the fact that others don't really understand the situation and can't be expected to, and hope they respect my efforts to not demand that others accommodate my audible shortcoming.