Wednesday 20 March 2019

Deaf for a Day

You know those moments in life where you have a chance exchange with someone which is not particularly remarkable in isolation, but nonetheless makes you smile and brightens your day? I have a lot of these when I manage to walk away from my pc and jump back into the real world.

However, this telephone exchange with a booking agent the other day was not one of those moments. No, this one left a mark in my brain for all the wrong reasons. And had it not given me an idea of how to change the world – hey, reach for the stars and you might land on the moon - it would be unremarkable; something that happens all too frequently I’m afraid, and requires nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders and a brisk brush off so that it doesn’t lend a dark shadow to the day.   

I *may* have mentioned previously that I am the one in six in this country who struggles with poor hearing. I’ve written about it specifically here and here. Sometimes my mishears are amusing and sometimes they pass with nobody, least of all me, registering. I am fortunate to be surrounded by sensitive friends and family who do their best to make things easier for me and I am also incredibly lucky to be the owner of the very latest in hearing aid technology which is the difference between me working and, to be frank, leaving the house or not. But I would be lying if I said that hearing loss is easy, disingenuous if I pretended it didn’t pervade all aspects of spoken communication with the outside world. 

When people aren’t impatient with my ‘pardons?’ and when they don’t jump from a gentle comment to a megaphone shout which I can hear, boy can I hear, but still can’t make sense of the sounds (because a shout, I’ve learnt, distorts the sound even more) that makes me very happy.

In this phone call the person on the other end of the line broke all the rules of communication with the one in six who is hard of hearing. She was irritated. I may not be able to hear every word but even without the eye rolling and screwed up face, I can hear irritation. She had no time in her busy day to repeat everything three times. Couldn’t I just concentrate a little harder because then I’d be able to hear, surely? Simple.

If only.

I do try to be a grown-up about this. I realise I should go-out-and-get-myself-a-real-problem if I’m going to allow a phone call with a stranger to ruin my day. I try to pull up my big girl pants and sweat the big stuff instead, but when this kind of exchange happens once too often, in a moment when you’re struggling to remain upbeat about the weight you carry when you struggle to hear and thus communicate, sometimes those big girl pants feel very heavy indeed.

I ranted to my friends. That helped. Then I had an idea and it won’t leave me alone. I’d like to share it with you. And maybe you’re a teacher or a parent, you work in education or are simply interested in making people’s days a little brighter, and might join me in pushing this idea as far as I can.

I have some sympathy for people who don’t know how to sensitively communicate with people who can’t hear. Some sympathy. There is a part of me which thinks that if people have respect for others, and are happy to hop into their shoes when necessary, they would endeavour to hide their irritation for this disability. That seems the human thing to do. Indeed, I remember a relative constantly shouting at my terrifically sweet grandma who had developed age-related hearing loss and I ached for her.  Even as a child I understood that it wasn’t her fault and, particularly as a child, I could imagine how unpleasant it was to be shouted at, so I don’t think the concept is a particularly tricky one.

However, the nuances of improved communication with the hard of hearing do tend to come as a result of experience. My family know not to attempt to communicate with me from another room. They don’t cover their mouths with their hands as they speak. They try to rephrase a sentence rather than repeat it verbatim because they’ve learnt that a different word may be easier to hear, and they discretely help me when they can ‘just tell’ that I’ve lost the thread of a big conversation. They have learnt this from experience.

I know to speak more slowly as opposed to loudly to give people that split second longer to match the lip shapes to the sound they’ve heard. And I know that there are homophene groups, (sounds which do not sound the same but look the same on the lips) and so signing the first letter of the troublesome word might help a lipreader make sense of it. I know that context is everything so if somebody really isn’t managing the conversation, it’s probably best to stop, explain the context and start again. Life and attendance at lipreading classes has taught me this, so it isn’t fair to expect people with normal hearing who aren’t in regular contact with those with hearing loss, to know this.

But they could.

Were you lucky enough to attend one of those primary schools where pupils spent the day blindfolded to experience a quick snapshot of life for people who can’t see well? People talk about the experience way beyond their school days, referring to how effective it was in raising awareness of disability at a wonderfully impressionable age. I don’t know if this is still practised, but I do hope it is. It’s true isn’t it that some of our most vivid memories, our deepest beliefs and ethics come from innovative teaching, fun activities and unusual initiatives experienced when we were under ten years of age.

So, how about a ‘Deaf for a Day’ initiative in schools? No expensive technology would be necessary, I’m sure simple headphones could be used to block out or distort sound for a few hours. If we wanted to make it truly authentic, we could even pipe some tinnitus sounds, screeches and whooshes into ears at random moments, just to upset the train of thought, right when the pupils thought they were managing pretty well using mannerisms and context to stay in the moment. Cruel, I know 😜.

It could be fun! It is staggering how much we can pick up from the unconscious clues people give off when they speak: the music and the dance, the ‘unsaid’ and I think that alone could be informative and entertaining. Like broken feet (and knees, and a smashed up forearm) and losing our voice however, I’m sure the novelty would quickly wear off. I’d give it, oh, thirty minutes of not knowing what everyone else was laughing at, not knowing what page the teacher was talking about, not understanding the next instruction so having to watch to see what somebody else did first and hope they were doing it right before attempting to copy.

And who’s to say that this discomfort, this frustration, this feeling of melancholy about a world that was going on without us, wouldn’t stay with these children into adulthood? So when the pupil became the assistant behind the counter, the waiter taking the order, the chair of a meeting, they would instinctively keep their hands away from their mouth and look their customer or colleague straight in the eye. With this experience in their formative years, they would hopefully refrain from grimacing, answering in clipped (unintelligible) tones, or talking to you as if English wasn’t your first language and boy, were you struggling to learn. On the end of the phone they might rephrase if the conversation was clearly not going well and spell difficult words using the phonetic alphabet. But most of all, most importantly of all, they would sympathise and do everything in their power to help you communicate, to avoid making you feel stupid and that you were an irritant, in fact, they’d treat you with the same respect they’d treat any other person whose faculties were all intact.

What do you think? Can we make it happen? Shall we try?

I’d like to add that there are many people who instinctively carry out my communication wish list already. To those, I say thank you, this is such a big deal to those of us with hearing loss. Please help me spread the word that people who can’t hear have feelings too. In fact, we rather rely on them.