My boss sent me a message the other day and said that while he and my coworker were talking, they noticed that communication had “oddly” gotten better with me and my coworkers since we have been remote. I felt a ping in my heart and a dig to my self esteem.
Oddly is the word that got me!
Not uncommon, my boss is a victim of the standard ableist social construct and oppression of the hard of hearing.
If a person’s inner ear is not functioning properly, that means they don’t have the same ability to process sounds accurately as those with normal hearing. It is not just missing a sound or word or the volume of the sound but it is the quality of the sound. It is not knowing where a sound came from or maybe not recognizing a sound.
For most of my life I have been the odd one. I was the only one of the five children in our household that was hard of hearing, HOH. I was probably the only one with hearing loss in most of my elementary classes, which made me feel isolated and odd at times. Accommodations, compassion, or protection were not provided for me within my own family, my classrooms, or my workplace. However, dismissive attitudes and rude or insensitive remarks easily flew out.
Communicating (and speaking), hearing, listening, and comprehending go hand in hand. When a person is hard of hearing, it impacts all of these functions, just like Parkinson’s disease impacts various aspects of a person’s mobility. We don’t blame the person with Parkinson’s disease for his/her inability to perform at the same level as others without this condition. So why does society continue to ask and require unequal standards on Hard of Hearing and Deaf citizens and blame us when there is a communication breakdown.
It really is no surprise that I function better at home or that I am able to communicate better. Open space work environments create various noise levels; keyboards tapping, people talking, doors opening\closing, papers shuffling, copier, phones, and so many other low vibrations that all work together to create the work environment, but can greatly impede our ability to function in the office. For those of us who are hard of hearing, it creates an even greater obstacle.
On the other hand, my home is very quiet. I primarily message or email coworkers and customers. I also have headphones that I use for one on one conversations with a customer or a coworker when needed and for our meetings that are usually accompanied with Zoom.
What I don’t have at home are coworkers interrupting my phone conversations (like I can hear the customer and my coworker at the same time), or talking over others, or having several employees shouting over cubes, having loud conversations, nor do I have to manage conversations with multiple speakers and quickly changing topics, all of which are sounds competing with each other while my limited inner ear hearing ability tries to decide which sounds it will register and send to my brain for processing and which ones are inaudible and it cannot decipher. I don’t have to try and play catchup because someone decided to start having a conversation with me before letting me know they were talking to me.
Just for the record, I cannot work and listen at the same time. I don’t have that privilege. I either listen or I work.
Working remote, I don’t have to play office politics and fear offending someone (yes, they get an attitude with me for explaining my unique hearing ability) because they don’t understand hard of hearing people. Or feel misunderstood because I cannot keep up with the rapid conversations or quick wit that invokes laughter (I am still trying to hear the punchline or missed it all together) that some take as me being unsociable, or “not trying to fit in”.
It is difficult for a hard of hearing person in open space offices. Being remote in my quiet home is so much less stressful. My sound log is greatly reduced, which are less sounds to hear, and less sounds to process.
For me, because I have damaged inner hair cells, it means when sounds bounce off my hair cells, three things happen; it will produce no sound (deaf), a modified sound quality, or a lower\reduced sound volume (hard of hearing). I have NO normal hearing in either ear. And while I do wear hearing aids, hearing aids cannot reproduce or magnify a sound that is silent. Nor can it make a damaged hair cell sound normal.
New technology is advancing quickly in audiology over recent years, making sounds more crisp and identifiable.
I remember the first time I got hearing aids. I had been hard of hearing all my life so I had no comparison to what normal hearing was. My own voice was louder and clearer and I also could hear other voices better. While I have talked to my mother many times in person and on the phone, I felt like I was hearing her true voice for the first time. I remember telling her how beautiful her voice sounded to me.
However, modern medicine has not found a way to surgically repair the inner hair cells inside a human’s ear. When they are gone or damaged, it is for life. This is why medical professionals warn us about headphones and their concern for our children’s hearing health.
Have you ever looked inside a piano? It is a complicated mechanism that all work together to create the sounds for a great pianist. When those inner parts of the piano are not working properly or are not ALL in tune, what happens? Some keys may produce beautiful sounds. Some may not resonate any sound. And others may produce a lower quality or a sour note.
Now imagine having to explain which key equals which note solely based on sound and not looking at the keys. How do you think after a few hours of doing this you might feel? Somewhat frustrated? How do you determine a note if you cannot see nor hear the note being played? Now imagine having to do this for hours, at school or work every day. This is what conversations are like for the Hard of Hearing and Deaf.
Each time a hard of hearing or deaf person enters into mainstream society, we process our surrounding sounds differently than normal hearing people. We even process them differently than each other. No two HOH people are the same.
It is time for society to change their perception of what it means to be hard of hearing. It is not only an image of a senior citizen, or a sign of getting older, or someone who has “selective” hearing, or “hears what they want to hear”, nor are they “slow”, or “spaced out”, or “not paying attention”, or “not listening”, or has a problem “communicating effectively”. Nor did you “confuse” them because they did not hear your comment. All terms I have personally heard said to me among many others.
Lastly, we don’t need “normal hearing” people to explain the difference between deaf and hard of hearing or downplaying our experience. We know the difference much better than anyone with normal hearing. It would be like a white person telling a light skinned black person how much harder racism impacts darker shades of skin color. Or a person with two arms telling someone with one arm, how hard it must be for those with no arms. It is dismissive to what we encounter on a daily basis.
12 Ways Noise Affects Employee Wellbeing Health Productivity:
“Workers in open plan offices take 70% more sick days than home workers.”