My hearing has never been good. Normal hearing is something I’ve had to work to maintain all my life with surgeries and procedures in doctors’ offices. Over time, I’ve progressed to having irretrievable below-normal hearing in the upper frequencies on my left side. I am hard of hearing, and as I age I will only become more so.
Knowing this, accepting it about myself is important in situations where faking normal hearing could cause problems, like when I’m standing in a noisy airport security line, talking to an officer, a fellow short-lady, through a pane of glass taller than both of us. Instead of gambling, guessing what she wants, I say, “Sorry, I’m hard of hearing,” explaining that I can’t meet her halfway and she needs to bear more of the burden of communication than she’s used to—which really just means she has to stop being verbally lazy and ask me about the yoghurt I forgot in my bag in a louder, clearer voice. The upper frequencies–voices of women and children–are less heard, and until they are, they need to be louder. The sexism built into my language tells me to call voices like these “shrill,” a word meant to shame people into silence, but a word which, for people like me, simply means “audible.”
My deaf sister-in-law says I need to stop introducing my condition with “Sorry…” Wheelchair users aren’t expected to stare down flights of stairs and tell anyone they’re sorry. I get it, and I’m working on it. I’ve even realized why I’ve always suffered a little stab of anger whenever someone doesn’t hear me and lets me know by saying, “Sorry.” The implication that anyone needs to apologize for not hearing—or not seeing or not walking—is ableist and backward. The idea that intruding on able-bodied privilege with requests that accommodations be made to social and physical structures that dismiss and deny special needs is something that demands an apology–I hate it. I do feel sorrow for the decline in my hearing. But I’m not responsible for it. No one owes anyone else a normal level of natural ability in anything, including hearing.
I noticed the decline in my hearing once I switched from working at home to studying in a large, crowded university—especially when my studies are in a new language where the skills and strategies I use in English to guess and gloss over what I don’t hear can’t be applied. While my Chinese reading and writing is quite good for someone at my level, my ability to understand what I’m listening to is bad. By the end of the month I spent living in China this summer, I realized that, some of the time, when I was giving my stock reply of “I can’t understand what you’re saying” what I really meant was “I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Coming home to my English-speaking family, I saw for the first time how much trouble I was having receiving all kinds of messages, including ones in my native language.
The audiology clinic asked me to bring an able-bodied handler with me to my hearing test, but I rebelled and came alone. The appointment was a sad trip back in time to when I was seven years old and facing my below-average hearing for the first time. Strangely enough the list of words I had to repeat in the soundproof booth hadn’t changed in all that time. The list was an odd, old-fashioned collection—and old-fashioned means sexist and Anglo-centric. The words were meant to be recognizable to elderly men. “Whitewash, inkwell, cowboy, baseball.” I asked, “Do you have lists in any languages other than English?” No, of course they didn’t. English was confounding my test results. Once I realized the list of words was taken from Tom Sawyer, once I knew I was amassing a set with a theme, I could guess them even more easily than usual.
I’ve never worn eyeglasses, and my childhood surgeries completely extinguished any interest in getting my ears pierced so I’m just now learning to tolerate a foreign object against my ear. My hearing aid penetrates much further into my head than I expected. It’s an infiltration. “I’m a cyborg,” I told the technician–not a word from the clinic’s list.
Back at our house, with my new circuitry, my youngest son was relieved I hadn’t come back with a hole drilled in my skull, and my oldest son congratulated me on my “augmented reality.” I smirked. “You mean, like your glasses?” That’s all a hearing aid should be for someone outside of Deaf culture who comes to be hard of hearing later in life. It’s eyeglasses for the ears, the restoration of a baseline. Cyborg-me knows it but does not know how to believe it yet, and sits by herself flexing her jaw, tipping the electronic node against the inside of her post-human head.