My daughter, Gracelynn, failed her hearing test at birth.
As expectant parents, we had fantasized about what her personality traits might be, who she would resemble, and what her journey might be. We certainly did not expect that she would be Hard of Hearing.
At birth, we were unaware of her degree of hearing loss. It felt natural to talk to her, to sing to her, and to shush her cries; but I didn’t know if she could hear me. And it broke my heart not knowing if she’d ever be able to hear me say, “I love you.”
I grieved. I felt irrationally guilty. And, then I educated myself on being deaf aware.
It’s important to understand deafness as an identity. Deaf with a capital D refers to a cultural identity, whereas deaf simply refers to a degree of hearing loss. Those within the Deaf community prefer the terms Deaf or Hard of Hearing. These are considered more positive than the term “hearing impaired”, which implies that something is wrong; that a person is less than whole. Also, the labels “deaf and dumb” and “disabled” are outdated, offensive, and a false representation.
Each person within the Deaf community has their own preferred way of communicating. Some prefer speech, some prefer sign language, and some prefer a mix of both.
The most common question our family gets asked is, “So, do you know how to sign?”
The answer to that is— we’re slowly learning. My daughter has primarily relied on her hearing aids, but we’re finding that supplementing with sign language is helpful, and important.
We’re trying to learn because we want her to be able to choose how she wants to communicate. We want her to feel that we’re not simply expecting that she’ll fit into our world, but that we’ll fit into her world as well.
Recently at a park, Gracelynn attempted to play with a child who noticed the battery light on her hearing aids blinking. That child whispered to another, “Look! See the flashing light on her head! She must be an alien!” In their childhood ignorance, they made a game of running away from “the alien.” It’s unfortunate. Gracelynn understands that others may be curious. Had they asked her what they were, she would have matter-of-factly replied, “They’re my hearing aids and they help me hear.” She may have even taught them the sign for friend.
It is important to be attentive to how to best communicate with someone who is Hard of Hearing. Here are some tips to help:
5 Things to Know
1. First, make sure you have their attention.
If you’re close by, it’s okay to lightly tap their shoulder. If you’re beyond reach to tap, you can wave you hand. Make sure you establish eye contact.
2. Face them, at the same level, when possible.
Clear facial expressions help them understand what you’re saying. Be aware that if you’re eating or chewing your speech will be more difficult to understand.
3. Speak naturally.
It’s a natural inclination to compensate for hearing loss by speaking loudly, slowing down, or over-enunciating words. However, that actually distorts the sound, making it harder to process.
4. Be visual.
It’s amazing how much my daughter is able to simply follow visual cues from others. For example, at the pool she will play alongside others, and many times they are oblivious to the fact that she can’t hear them (without her hearing aids) because she mimics what they do.
5. Resist the urge to give up!
It can be easy to feel annoyed when asked to repeat yourself, and to mutter a dismissive, “Never mind.” But please, be patient. Some levels of hearing loss make it difficult to hear certain words because of the way they sound. Rewording, rephrasing, or simplifying what you’re saying could be more effective than repetition.
And understand that it will be harder to process speech if there is a lot of background noise. A good way to check if they’ve heard what you’ve said is to say, “Tell me what you understood.”
It’s okay if communication is awkward! I can guarantee that the effort is appreciated. And, it’s okay to have questions about Deaf culture and to ask.
Let’s educate ourselves and our children to be more aware of the challenges that people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing face, to raise our own emotional intelligence and that of our children.