Gorgeously Hard of Hearing
As a devout Montréal fashionista, my 20-something-self had been convinced a most essential ritual of said lifestyle was to examine hair and makeup religiously in the office bathroom. On such a ceremony of primping, another colleague exited a stall, smiled, and said something to me in a rather cheerful tone.
“Oh, I know,” I cried. “Gorgeous, so gorgeous, I cannot believe how gorgeous!”
She gawked at me as if I had an entire head of lettuce sticking out from the gap between my front teeth.
I stared at her, perplexed. Then it hit me. I suppressed a sigh. I did it again, didn’t I? So, as usual, I asked the question:
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Finally, she blinked and muttered, “I said you look gorgeous today.”
I couldn’t help myself; I burst out laughing. “I’m so sorry! I thought you said it was gorgeous outside today!” In all fairness, we’d finally had a truly lovely spring morning after such a craptastic winter.
She giggled in reply.
I added, “Yeah, I’m a bit hard of hearing. And I keep forgetting to ask people to repeat themselves.”
“It’s okay.” She washed her hands and walked out the door.
I glanced at my reflection. That went well. Then I reapplied my lipstick.
Almost ten years later, I was sitting in a restaurant when panic struck. An instant reaction, and it happened every time. The man across from me had just covered his mouth while nonchalantly leaning his elbows on the table, resting one hand over the other. Whenever this occurred, I felt like I’d been suddenly tossed into a sensory deprivation tank against my will. Perhaps that might seem melodramatic, but for a moment, I couldn’t breathe.
“Please, can you put your hands down?” I gasped out the words. “I don’t understand what you’re saying!”
I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how long I’d been reading lips. I must have watched people’s mouths decades ago—maybe even as a little kid. And I’d be reminded of this whenever someone obscured their lips from my view.
It confused me, to be honest, because I could hear all kinds of sounds. Sometimes certain noises rattled me, and I needed to leave the scene in order to regroup. But voices? Voices were drowned out so easily. And never mind speaking to me if a tap was running; I wouldn’t make you out. Same with range hood fans.
The man put his hands down.
I felt immediate relief.
Now I could follow the conversation.
Oh frig, another conference call. In my later thirties, I’d no choice but to telework, and this team didn’t do video calls, so there was no way to read anyone’s lips. Plus, this group had totally mastered speaking in “library voices.” It brought to mind the “low-talker” episode of Seinfeld. (Looking back, I can’t recall if that sketch was ableist, but the feeling of annoyance at not being able to hear what was being said had pressed on my last nerve.)
I turn the volume of my phone to full. That’s a little better. I guess.
But there was still this one person who would not raise their voice, no matter how politely I asked them to speak up. My frustration mounted when I realized I was missing out on vital information for my project. I felt my temper rising and tried everything to calm myself down. I took a deep breath, then asked this person to expand on what they meant, hoping it was an effective way of inquiring that they repeat themselves.
And for the umpteenth time during this call, they spoke without elevating their volume. I couldn’t tell if my mind played tricks on me, but it also sounded like they went even quieter at the end of their sentences. I was sure they were fully capable of raising their voice, too.
Finally, I threw my pen down and shouted into my phone, “Geez-Louise! Do you speak so only dogs can hear?!”
Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Yeah, it hadn’t been my most sensitive moment.
Then someone expressed their opinion that if I wanted to hear properly, I should have been at the meeting in person.
Or, we could have used video chat. We have the technology!
I explained why I couldn’t be onsite, which had to do with accessibility, and the project manager quickly cooled the mood in the room.
Eventually, I left that contract.
Ahhhh, me time. In my forties, partying meant getting all cozy under my fleece blankie and turning on a show. I found a series about Queen Elizabeth I. The closed captions were on—they were always on. That way, if I struggled a little with the voices, even in a quieter room, I had my backup.
I loved history, so this felt like a perfectly relaxing way for me to unwind.
It didn’t take long for me to jump out of my skin.
The words spoken by the narrator were absolutely not those displayed on the screen.
“There it is again!”
The captions referred to Lord Darnley as…Lord Dudley! They’re so two different people! Dudley was Elizabeth’s supposed longtime romantic interest. Darnley married Mary Queen of Scots.
I caught on after a while that the captioner probably didn’t understand British accents. This ticked me off “royally” because I could hear the difference and knew the facts, but what if someone watched this for the first time and couldn’t hear at all? If they weren’t able to read lips because of camera angles, would they feel bewildered at the storyline? I bet I would have scratched a hole through my head trying to figure it out, after rewinding the scenes a few times.
I kept the show on a little while longer but was annoyed at the continued errors, so I switched it off.
Time to read a book instead.
Pushing 50 at a writer’s conference—one I had looked forward to every year. I noticed there were far more people than in previous years, which was nice to observe. Huh. A lot of happy, enthusiastic voices as well. I entered the vendor room, using my rollator, to browse books. Seemed easy to navigate despite the crowds. The chatter escalated as people found friends and colleagues. Lovely atmosphere, but my head felt a little funny because of the intersecting conversations and buzz of the room.
I decide to roll away to a quieter space in the hall. Ah, that’s better. Like everything had dialled down to “chill” in my brain and body.
Oops. Sessions are over. Attendees spilled out of the meeting rooms. The hall became packed, conversations crashed into each other again. My internal dial ramped up, and I was dizzy from hearing all the sounds at once, a fugue of words.
I head for the elevators as fast as I can roll. Someone had mentioned there was a designated quiet space for folks like me. The ride upstairs was too quick a journey for me to return back to “chill mode.” Once the doors opened, I made a furious dash with my rollator to the quiet room.
Only, the quiet room had an open door to a common gathering space. The conversations got even louder and more enthusiastic. I was convinced my head would explode like that guy’s in Scanners.
I darted out of the quiet room like my life depended on it. I wanted to cry and lie down all at once.
By the time I found a quiet space that remained quiet, my energy was spent.
I wondered how I could possibly attend this event the following year. Then realized I needed to tell someone about this. I knew the accessibility liaison. They should help.
I closed my eyes and just breathed deeply until I could focus again.
Now, I’m 50 and still nifty. I need a second language. No, that’s not quite right. I need something that feels even more than that—I need another way of communicating altogether. I need to learn ASL.
As I try to pick up a few signs, I quickly discover that the neuropathic limitations of how fibromyalgia affects my arms might impact how I express myself. It frankly just hurts to use my hands and arms this way. But I feel ASL would be an important asset to my life. Plus, it’ll expand my interaction with people in the Deaf community.
The only reason I didn’t learn ASL in my 20s was because some hearing person said it was forbidden for hearing people to learn it, and the Deaf community would find it offensive if I learned it. (Gatekeeping much? Too bad I wasn’t familiar with that term at the time.) I was definitely hard of hearing back then, and ASL could have improved my life dramatically.
Only recently I found out that Deaf folks welcome people to learn ASL. I’m still really ticked off at that human who gave me false information. For nearly 30 years, I could have spoken with my hands. I have no idea why that gatekeeping happened. Somebody back then must have been too clueless for words, whether spoken or signed! I should have investigated it independently from that person’s opinion.
A friend in the Deaf community tells me there are accommodations to help people sign if they manage physical disabilities. This gives me comfort. I also have trouble mirroring people, but I’m told teachers can work around that, too. More deep exhales on my part.
So, here I am at a half-century of life, hard of hearing at times, having auditory sensory processing difficulties and misophonia at other times. Chronic pain and stiff connective tissues might impair my ability to communicate by signing; however, I’m determined to learn what I denied myself for so long.
I stare at my cell phone at a beautiful Deaf woman teaching ASL on Instagram. I require a second or two to make out her left hand from her right. Okay, I so got this. I stare at my reflection in the mirror, to make sure I appear the same way she does when imitating her actions.
Then, I do another search to complete the phrase. The man on the instructional video is kind enough to slow down his movement for newbies like me to copy him.
I look in the mirror again, and sign: wow you look gorgeous
It makes me happy. It’ll take me a while to learn more, but this is a fun way to begin.
And in the meantime, I can compliment a bunch of people using the first full phrase I’ve memorized.
About the Author
Cait Gordon is a disability advocate who writes speculative fiction that celebrates the reality of diversity. She is the author of Life in the ’Cosm and The Stealth Lovers. Her short stories have appeared in Alice Unbound Beyond Wonderland (Ed. Colleen Anderson), We Shall Be Monsters (Ed. Derek Newman-Stille), and Space Opera Libretti (Eds. McNett and Rossman). Cait also founded The Spoonie Authors Network and joined Talia C. Johnson to co-edit the Nothing Without Us anthology (a 2020 Prix Aurora Award nominee), which is a collection of 22 stories whose authors and protagonists identify as disabled, Deaf, neurodiverse, and/or they manage mental illness. You can connect with Cait at spoonieauthorsnetwork.blog, caitgordon.com, or on Twitter (@CaitGAuthor).