Can You Repeat That?: Being Hard of Hearing in University

I bet I can guess the first image that pops into your head when you read “hearing loss.” Ready?

An older man or woman, white hair, probably some age spots, definitely some wrinkles. Does your imagination put clear wires in their ears? Did you even know you should have?

I know that I didn’t. Until a fateful audiologist appointment at 15 years old, I thought exactly the same thing: “Hearing aids? Only old people wear those.” Frankly, I don’t think I even really knew what a hearing aid even looked like until I had to pick one.

But spoiler alert: I’ve got hearing aids! six years in, and an entire lifetime left to go. But just those six years has been long enough for me to be fed up with the stigma, the reactions, the discomfort of OTHER PEOPLE who realize I have them. So, let me tell you a little story. 

Growing up, I always knew I sucked at hearing things, but as a kid you chalk that up to just — ya know, sucking — not it being an actual problem. Haha, I’m soooooo deaf, can you say that again? But as a teenager, when suddenly the things you aren’t hearing stop being about which crayon colour you want and start being about important things you need to get done, it becomes a problem. I was finishing up grade 10 when my Mom took me to an audiologist for the first time because I was responding with “what?” too much. They put me in a big metal box with a headset hanging on the wall, shut me inside and told me to raise my hand whenever I heard a beep. When I got out, she told me I was Hard of Hearing (HoH).
It’s different when you’re older, I imagine; I think, by then, you would have come to expect that it’s coming at some point or other. And kids just grow up with it. But getting diagnosed at 15 felt one hell of a lot like losing a part of myself. Worse? No one really knows how to deal with a hearing-impaired young adult, especially when they’re struggling against the same stigma you are. All the ads and pamphlets are seniors, anyway, so talk about detrimental media: the only community I thought I could belong in existed at a Seniors’ Home.

Being HoH at this age is weird because no one expects it and you don’t feel like you quite fit anywhere; I’m not deaf, so I don’t think I fit there; I’m not hearing, and I clearly don’t fit here. 

The simplest explanation is that hearing aids are like glasses for ears: I can hear without them, but it’s fuzzy — like wearing headphones without music on, except you can never take them out. I can function without them — I have unconsciously lip read for 15 years — but it’s tiring and difficult. I don’t sign, though I’m learning, so I rely on my dear little cyborg bits to keep me up to speed.

University problems were unexpected. I thought I’d feel worse in the classroom and that my biggest struggle would be following lecture. While that’s not a problem — I swear some profs are just whispering??? — it’s more of a day-to-day issue. For instance, I’m left out on jokes I didn’t hear because “it’s not funny if you have to repeat it.” I have countless times accidentally said “yes” to something I didn’t want to agree to by smiling and nodding my way through (a BuzzFeed article explains some problems with this). I’m less confident with relationships and flirting because I don’t trust that I’m correctly hearing what they say and just avoid it instead. I could go on, but you get the gist: this shit is hard and made harder by the fact that other people don’t know how to deal with me. It’s like glasses, guys — why are my hearing aids such a big deal?

So, from your friend who has hearing aids (because yes, we exist), here are some things I want y’all to know: 

The Don'ts 

1. Don’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s tough to know how to react, but whoop-de-do, I’ve got hearing aids. I don’t always hear you. I’m not going to be offended by questions; in fact, I’d rather you ask than just pretend you never found out. There’s a difference between ignoring something and taking it in stride, and it’s shitty when what you’re ignoring is a vital part of me. 

2. Don’t act like your problems are worse. Yes, everyone has their struggles, but no one wants to confess something and be told it’s inconsequential compared with what someone else is dealing with.

3. Don’t treat it like it’s nothing. Let me be clear: just because I’m blasé about it doesn’t mean you get to lobby that back. Don’t use me as a joke. Don’t tell me that at least I didn’t lose a “more important” sense. Don’t “connect” with me saying you’re “sooo deaf” too. Straight up, it’s a disability. If I’m not allowed to poke fun at your struggles, don’t do it to mine.

4. Don’t act like you’re entitled to more. Whether I tell you about my hearing aids or you notice the wire in my ear, you don’t automatically get to know my entire life story. Likewise, you don’t get to broadcast it to anyone else. I’m not hiding anything, but I’m also not going to confess my struggles to just anyone. Sorry, boo.

5. Don’t make it about you. One of my biggest issues is others’ efforts to be comfortable with my hearing loss, which comes at my detriment. For instance, a boss once wanted me to announce it to my coworkers — if I wouldn’t, he would — so they wouldn’t assume I was rude. The problem is, a) it’s not his to share or to force me to share and b) it put his and my coworkers’ feelings over my comfort and privacy. You may not know how to act, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to belittle or sideline me for being different.

The Do’s

1. Repeat yourself. I wish this went without saying since it’s pretty much staple for literally anyone who doesn’t catch what you said. Apologies in advance if I ask you three times, but please still tell me! It’s so sad to get the “never mind” instead of actually finding out. Pro tip: instead of shouting at me, switch up your wording! It might just be that I can’t hear the sounds you used. 

2. Meet me halfway. Sometimes all it takes is a clear voice and facing me for me to catch everything you say. I won’t make a big deal of it if you don’t — I’m pretty sure most of us are used to dealing without that — but it goes SUCH a long way. Plus, those are basics of polite communication, so really, I’m helping you too. You’re welcome

3. Ask me! Curiosity and confusion are totally normal and as long as you aren’t being condescending, most people I know would be happy to explain what works best! If your friend broke their leg, would you just take the stairs or would you ask if a ramp is better? The same thing works here!

Well, now you know all my secrets. Just a friendly reminder again that, just because most people’s hearing deteriorates with age, there are a ton of us young’uns dealing with it too. So from me to you and a big “F-You” to the “old people” stereotype: hi, I exist too.