What It's Like To Have A Hearing Disability In College

Ever since I can remember, I have always been deaf in my left ear, a condition known as unilateral hearing loss. Also known as Single-Sided Deafness, a person with this condition has normal hearing loss in one ear and hearing loss to some degree in the other. Obstacles associated with this type of hearing loss include inability to separate background noises, difficulty hearing signals from the deaf side and reduced speech intelligibility. 

Having a hearing disability comes with a social stigma that most people associate with old age and below average cognitive skills. Many people, including myself, take on the burden of this stigma and ultimately end up hiding our condition and subjecting to isolation. We try to pick up on social cues, such as laughing when other people laugh, just so we feel like we are normal. Some of us are even in a state of denial that we even have hearing loss. Hearing loss has manifested itself into an invisible disability due to the negative connotation of the word "disabled" and fear of being socially isolated. 

One of my most dreaded places to be in is the classroom. No, not because I don't enjoy learning but because of all the possible challenges I know I would face. In all my experiences of being in a classroom setting, I had to strategically place myself in a seat where I could not only hear the instructor but also my classmates. I try to sit in the best possible seat that will benefit me, but when you have hundreds of people in your lecture class or constantly get to class a little late, having a consistent or best fit seat isn't always easy. For nearly every single marketing discussion I've attended this semester, I have never been able to fully hear my group's discussion. Although they were right next to me, I would pick up conversation from other groups surrounding me and I couldn't control what I could hear and what I couldn't hear. That's the struggle with single-sided deafness; the ability to differentiate background noise in a noisy setting becomes virtually impossible. Someone could just be sitting a seat away from me on my non-dominant ear, and I bet you I wouldn't be able to hear anything they say. I would just sit there and nod my head like I understood, but after class, I would text in our group chat for someone to reiterate what was discussed earlier.

What a horrible confession, I know. I keep telling myself that I am doing the right thing by strategically sitting next to them on my good side, which means that my working ear is facing them. Imagine having to physically turn your entire body just to hear group instructions. I constantly feel this wave of embarrassment and apprehension to ask for repetition due to the fear of being perceived as slow or unintelligent. Because of my coping skills, it creates the perception that I am not a contributing group member or possibly a freeloader. Group projects themselves are difficult enough, and it doesn't help that I cannot hear half the material that I should. Large lecture halls are essentially large echoing pits of people typing on their laptops, loud whispers and pretty much everything besides the professor speaking. Gone are the relaxed days of high schools and hello to the real world college life, where you can no longer coast through academics. Being in college is just one step away from a true adulthood life with a full time job, and the last thing I want to do is give off the impression that I cannot keep up with the rigorous work load or that I can't handle college life. 

As a naturally quiet and shy person, my hearing disability emphasizes my social awkwardness and natural timid nature. Social settings, especially those involving strangers or people who don't know of my condition, already put me in an uncomfortable position. I get overwhelmed with the fear of not being able to hold conversations or the repeating misconception that others will think I am slow or not interested. Everyone prides themselves on making a good first impression, and I don't want mine to be negative. I cannot count the amount of social gatherings or campus events that I've been to where I asked someone to repeat themselves at least three times. I remember being at Dance Marathon and not being able to sing along to some songs because I couldn't hear them. I know something as small as not being to hear songs at an event is silly, but rather the main idea is not being able to participate. I remember needing to have my friends physically guide me because I couldn't hear their cues. 

Today, I was at Starbucks during their "Buy One, Get One" holiday drink promotion (10/10 would recommend), and as you would imagine, the store was packed. Instantly I was already struggling to hear my friend, who was standing right next to me in line. Whenever the barista would announce an order name, their voice was instantly drowned out in the sea of customers in front of me. I was sitting with a group of friends at at nearby table, but I couldn't hear any of them. They were all laughing at something, but in the moment, their laughs and conversation sounded muted. I'm sure this might be perceived as dramatic, but imagine the internal embarrassment of not being to hear people literally right next to you. I've had people joke around with me and ask me "Are you deaf?",which comes with the response of "yes" and awkward silence after. The process of making friends is difficult enough, but feeling the need to hide my hearing loss makes it much harder. I never want to introduce myself as "the half deaf girl." Sure, it would make me memorable and give me one of those "tell me something interesting about you" facts, but I don't want that to be my identity. 

Having hearing loss is problematic in most situations but in college especially. College is the time where academics are taken more seriously, the time where you make your lasting impressions and the time where you are supposed to find where you belong. I also believe it is the prime time that people start to feel self-conscious due to the increasing pressure of adulthood, determining your career path and establishing an identity. The immense level of competition, coupled by the continuous hurdles of hearing loss, often put me at a stage of vulnerability and low confidence. It's a daily struggle and learning how to cope with it in a multitude of settings is a continuous journey that I know I can achieve. 

Although I come across challenges daily, it has not stopped me from taking as many opportunities that college has to offer. I am still able to attend concerts, lively football games and a variety of entertaining campus hosted events. Sure, I wasn't able to hear some songs during Dance Marathon last year, but that didn't stop me or discourage me from staying up the entire 24 hours to dance and raise money. I wasn't able to hear my friends at Starbucks, but does that mean that they will think less of me? Absolutely not. Will I continue to get Starbucks with them? Absolutely.  

Although there is no single major event or life obstacle I can confidently say I conquered, it's the small details that are really significant. My hearing has been stable for the past few years, it is not mandatory for me to get a hearing aid, and I can still say that I am doing well academically and socially. It's easy for me to pinpoint all the times that I had a negative experience, but in the overall spectrum of things, I am not dramatically hindered by this disability. As a matter of fact, if I were to compare my freshman self to my junior self, I would say I've made a drastic improvement. I still struggle, but not as much as before. I've gotten involved more than ever, made more friends than before and can say that I don't consider myself as "disabled" as I used to. Gone are the freshman days of hiding out in my dorm room and hello to the days of putting myself out there.

My intention for writing this article is not to complain about how much harder my life is compared to every one else's or to make people pity me, but rather to educate and show people that disabilities do not have to be physically prominent to be significant. Regardless of how severe your hearing loss range is, there is no reason for hearing loss disabilities to be treated any differently than a physical disability. Regardless of the daily struggles I face, I am still grateful that I have the ability to hear and the ability to essentially maneuver my way through a typical college life.