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Navigating A World That Assumes You Hear: How to Deal With Not Being Able to Hear

By Michele Linder


At whatever stage in life you came to hearing loss, it’s likely no one gave you any specific information on how to deal with not being able to hear. No one instructed you on what to expect, how to react, or what to do to make communication easier. There’s no required Hearing Loss 101 class.  There’s no orientation for newbies that teaches you how to navigate through difficult hearing situations.

          There should be.

I recently posted a great article to our SayWhatClub Facebook Page that I read on The Mighty, a website that publishes “real stories by real people facing real challenges”. In the article, To the Girl Who Saw Me Struggle to Communicatethe author describes a process she’s gone through “hundreds of times” throughout her college career—standing in line at the bistro in the busy student café rehearsing her order before it’s her turn at the counter. 

         “I’ll admit to wondering… if this situation is something she’s dealt with “hundreds of times”, why isn’t she better at it?”

I’m going to break this simple scenario down for you. I spent several decades letting these very simple situations turn unpleasant, frustrating and awkward.

          Yes, I still assess situations that are new to me.  I rehearse, and use my super powers (lipreading, anticipatory and observation skills, etc.)  I do all I can to make things go more smoothly.  No longer am I on pins and needles waiting for what can, and most likely will, go wrong, because–

I tell people that I can’t hear. 

Don’t be afraid, just do it. And, however you say it is fine… for me, I say “Hi there… first, let me mention that I’m a lipreader and I need to see you speak, so please don’t look down while talking or I won’t be able to read your lips.  Lipreading is great, but it doesn’t always work, so I may need you to write down what I can’t hear.”, as I hold up my trusty pad and pen. That may seem like a mouthful, but it’s pretty much a given that anyone behind a counter—wait staff, check-out or bank clerk, etc.—is going to talk to you while looking down, so clue them in at the start of things and they’ll know better.

And, speak up when you foresee a problem. 

If, when you place your order, the counter person asks for your name, let them know you’re not going to hear them call you when your order is ready. Ask for a plan B.  If they make a workable suggestion, great! If not, offer a solution of your own—“I’ll stand over there and watch for you to wave at me when my order is ready, but if I miss it someone needs to come over and get me.”

          If something does go wrong and you miss a cue, and the aggravated guy behind you taps you on your shoulder and rolls his eyes…

Keep your cool.

Because the minute you freak out, all the skill in the world won’t be of any use… you’re now so flustered that any ability you had to figure out what’s being said goes out the window.

And, do let rude people knowin as nice a way possiblethat rudeness is not helpful.

It’s not something they would want from others, so thank them for getting your attention. Tell them you’re deaf and sometimes miss things.  Also tell them the aggravation and eye-rolling isn’t necessary or appreciated.

          If you need justification for calling them out…

Consider it a teaching moment. 

Express your hope that when they next encounter someone that seems to be not paying attention, consider that they might also be deaf.

          “If you do lose your cool, for whatever reason—someone has made you feel “less than” or you’re embarrassed at not hearing and panic—consider this…”

It’s not your fault that you can’t hear. 

Stop buying into the misconception that you’re inconveniencing the world because you have different communication needs.  

          Stop pressing your lips tightly together and glancing at the scuffs on the toes of your black Converse low-top sneakers. No amount of fiddling with your hearing aids or wishing will produce an answer to the mysterious unknown question you didn’t hear. It will never magically appear out of nowhere in written form.  But you can…

Have them write it down, 

thereby creating your own magic! Hand over your paper and pen, and say “You’re going to have to write that down, I’m not getting it… thanks.” Don’t pose it as a question, simply offer instruction for what you need.

It’s empowering when you realize you don’t have to leave difficult hearing situations to chance. When you actively participate in finding ways to make things play out as smoothly as possible, you’ll likely not need a gentle and helpful soul to swoop in and clue you in… you’ll be able to handle the situation yourself before it turns unpleasant.

However, as the author states, she was having an incredibly stressful week.  She was feeling extremely insecure, isolated, and alone with regard to her hearing loss.  We all know how that feels. It’s normal to have bad days when we feel vulnerable and don’t handle situations as well as we could. So, there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. 

          “It’s certainly not my intent to beat the author up in any way, either. I’m really glad she gave the world a window into what life is like with hearing loss. We’ve all had encounters where we’re not in the frame of mind to be our own best advocate.  Sometimes we’re just tired of explaining. Her article made me think about my own bad days, and how far I’ve come in my fifty-seven years.  What I’ve learned along the way has made me stronger and a better person.”

Hopefully, on those bad days you’ll be as lucky as the author was at crossing paths with a particularly tuned-in person who took it upon themselves to step in and help, and who didn’t make a big deal about it.

Sometimes we, and others, can make hearing loss out to be a bigger deal than it needs to be.

          Yes, it is a big deal that one whole sense is not working the way it was designed to work and it affects almost everything you do, especially how you communicate. However…

Take charge! 

Actively work on ways to eliminate what makes a situation unpleasant. Think of it as instruction that increases your self-sufficiency, which in turn makes you feel more capable. And, capable is what gets you out in the world to enjoy your life more.

Live more, isolate yourself less.  Join SWC for more ideas on how to advocate for yourself.

          Most people with a disability want to remain independent and self-sufficient and to feel capable.  Don’t you?

14 thoughts on “Navigating A World That Assumes You Hear: How to Deal With Not Being Able to Hear”

  1. Thank you Michele, this is very helpful. I must try to remember how to explain myself better to others that I need them to look at me while talking to me.

    Even my husband will look other directions while talking and I can’t read his lips and have to guess. He even sometimes talks to me from a different room, forcing me to go to that room to be able to hear all his words.

    I find that people always forget, and I have to remind them often, making me feel like a nuisance.

  2. Sandra, you’re welcome, and I’m glad you found this helpful. It took me a lot of years to stop feeling like a nuisance. It’s not needed, but it’s something that a lot of people with disabilities buy into–we’re an inconvenience to everyone else. Just remember, if everyone else had a barrier they wouldn’t want to be made to feel they are a nuisance. Sometimes family is the hardest… my husband has known me since I was 14 and I’ve had a hearing loss since early childhood, but 43 years later he still needs reminding. :o) I’m afraid we are destined to remind and inform often.

  3. Hello Michele. Thank you for sharing that. I am deaf in my left ear, but have good hearing in my right ear. However, if there is any background noise, i really struggle to hear anything. I am only 6 months down the line on my journey with this…But, have realized, like you wrote, that if I tell people that i can’t hear properly, then they are generally likely to try and help. One time, i was at the airport and i was waiting for my bag to be checked as it came through security. there were so many people there, and the airport staff were shouting things and holding people’s bags up. When i saw my bag being held up I ran to the person holding it. But I had no idea what she was saying to me. I ended up telling her that i was deaf in one ear, and she apologized to me immediately and she spoke slowly and clearly and with actions. She also made extra room for me, so i could get closer to her as she spoke. So now, if i can’t hear, i just tell the person that I can’t. As you said, if they respond in an unhelpful way – that’s their issue, not your’s. Also, yes, it is not our fault we can’t hear! – Good to remember this!!! take care. Carly

  4. Hi Carly,

    You’re welcome! Good for you for speaking up on your own behalf. If you have any kind of hearing loss at all, you’re going to struggle in certain situations. It helps to inform, and I didn’t for a lot of years because I didn’t have any advocacy mentors and had to learn how to advocate for myself, by myself, from a young age.

    I travel a lot on my own, even internationally, and the airport can be tricky. Did you know that larger airports have “Disability” or “Handicapped” lines for security? When you check in, ask if there is a “Special Services” line for people with disabilities. If there is a line, you’re eligible to use it. If there isn’t a special line, many times you’ll be ushered to the front anyway and the TSA people will be told you have hearing difficulties and so they’ll know up front. Ask for and use this line, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not for you, because it is. I had one TSA person point the “Handicapped” sign and say “This line is only for those in wheelchairs.” I pointed out that the sign has a person in a wheelchair as its symbol, but that in no way means disability is limited to mobility. I asked for their supervisor. I was ushered through with an apology. Often those who should know these things, don’t, so don’t cave when you run into someone who is ignorant, and stand your ground, you’re educating.

    If you select “Special Services” when you make your reservation and indicate “Hearing Impaired” (Delta’s designation) the airline usually will send a wheelchair to aid you. Some like this option, but for a lot of us it’s not a good accommodation, so I tell them every time, “Thanks, but no thanks. I can walk. I can’t hear, what I need is to see announcements in text form and for your staff to be aware I’m deaf, but thank you.”

    Good luck to you. ~Michele

  5. Hello Michele. Wow. I wasn’t aware of this at all! Next time i book a flight, i will look for this option. Airports (and train stations) can be really difficult, especially if announcements are on a PA system…I think that being hearing impaired can be quite a misunderstood disability. It’s difficult sometimes, because we don’t ‘look’ disabled. When i first lost my hearing i couldn’t have imagined telling strangers, but as soon as I did it once, it felt liberating. Now I will tell anyone, if I am experiencing any communication difficulties. Take care and thank you so much for the valuable advice! Carly

  6. Thank you for your response. It is so nice to know someone understands.
    I enjoy reading your blog, it is very helpful.

  7. This is great, Michele! I thank you for all the support you’ve shown me in my deaf-blindie life, with SWC! All this friendship, love, and education, is so invaluable. You know that I struggle with not one, but two sensory challenges…being both legally blind and having a severe-profound hearing loss. An extremely-recent cane-user, I’m so new to navigating this world using what limited senses I have. Not going to lie…it’s daunting, confusing, emotional, and usually leaves me exhausted at day’s end! 😛 My compensating methods have included getting new, strong hearing aids, a Roger FM Pen, my glasses, enlarged captions (thank you, Netflix!), and just this week, my, “magic white wand.” I spent today on a total adventure, getting myself through multiple trains and walking a ton, to get to various hearing aid and vision appointments. Some of was amusing, surprising, thankful, frustrating…but I felt like I learned a great deal, and feel more comfortable using my new stick. So…thank you, again, immensely, for all the encouragement! 😀

  8. Great article! I have had my share of problems with hearing. I actually won a prose contest writing about my hard of hearing issues.
    Lost 65% if my hearing at the age 5 from the mumps and then was lucky enough to have discovered an Acoustic Neuroma at 66. All my life I have dealt with this. I make it known to everyone that I lip read. I also know I drive people crazy. One does what they got to do to survive!!!

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