19 Percent

19.1 percent.

That’s the number of people with disabilities working in the US, compared to 68.2 percent without disabilities, according to United States Department of Labor’s September 2015 Disability Employment Statistics.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has laws that make discrimination on the basis of disability illegal, but my high school experience showed me the slippery ways people in power can bypass these laws.

In my first post-graduate job, a makeup salesperson at a major US department store, I received diversity training, which included many topics: language inclusivity; recognizing racial bias; respect of different religions. But what struck me was the topic of disability.

When I first entered the workforce, my parents encouraged me to hide my disability because I passed for able-bodied better than most people in my position. Any discrimination, they believed, would be brought by my openness, and they suspected it would be better for me to be quiet. Typically, I would have rejected this advice, telling my parents I would not be shackled by chains of ableism created by ignorant people, however, I was nervous about my post-collegiate future and felt adrift in the “real world” after almost 20 years of academia. I hated living at home and I wanted to earn money, but I was not sure if moving out and making a living would be possible if I was open about my hearing loss. Wanting to err on the side of caution, I nervously chose to go into hiding on my first day of work.

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How I Made My Dog Afraid of Thunderstorms

For the first 12 years of my life, I slept peacefully through the majority of thunderstorms. If I ever awoke, it was during a strike so violent everybody in the house was awake, and huddled in my mother’s bed.

With half an eardrum in one ear and no eardrum in the other, the idea of a thunderstorm being frightening seemed silly. Why would pretty flashing lights with next to no sound be scary? As long as there was no thunder, storms seemed like a ridiculous thing to fear.

Summer 2005, however, would change this idea for the rest of my life.

Almost one year after my left eardrum was repaired and half my hearing was restored, the horror of strange sounds hit me.

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Don’t Eat my Hearing Aid!

One of the most common accidents with hearing aids is a pet thinking it’s lunch.*

If you Google the phrase “pets eating hearing aids,” you will find endless articles and pet shaming photographs detailing this horror. No matter how often I read these stories however, I never believed it would happen to me. Throughout my life as a hearing aid user, I never had problems with my dog, Daisy, or my cat, Greta, going near my hearing aids. I could leave them on my bureau every night and know they will be in the same place the next morning. Although Greta and Daisy were senior animals when I received my Audèo V, both of them were in the prime of their youth at ages eight and three, respectively, when I received my first hearing aids at age 12. I was lucky that even then, they never once mistook my hearing aid for a meal.

“Does phonak have a replacement policy for when the ‘dog ate my hearing aid?” Photo: Phonak Facebook Page

My views on pet behavior around hearing aids, however, changed when I started taking live-in pet sitting jobs at age twenty-two when I met a cat named Neeley.

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When “Never Mind” Goes Both Ways

Stephanie Booth and I share a pet peeve: being told “Never mind, it’s not that important” after an individual repeats themselves a few times. Most people give up on trying to speak to hard of hearing people like us with that line.

I always get upset when I am told that “it’s not that important” because, to me, hearing every single thing people have to say is a gift. After fighting for my hearing through ten surgeries, I have learned to never take the spoken word for granted. Whether it’s listening to what other people have to say, or hearing enough to form your own opinions, spoken words have always been a treasure to me. Being told “never mind, it’s not that important” takes away my joy in hearing other people and my chance to stand up and form an opinion. This small phrase cuts me deeply, and makes me feel isolated.

I remember telling my mother this when she said that phrase to me. After hearing it from her constantly, I finally lost my temper and said, “It’s important to me! I want to hear your words and decide for myself how I feel about them!”

From my perspective, it felt like another instance of bigotry against hard of hearing individuals. In response to that view, Mom mentioned that most people are often self-conscious about their speech and sometimes embarrassed to share ideas. If they are asked to repeat themselves, they shut down and say “never mind” because they feel their words and ideas are stupid and hate to hear more than once. It was a problem that especially hurt my mother because, like me, she spent her whole life being called stupid. Continue reading

Missing the Boat

There are very few places in life where I actively feel my disability. With an Audeo V riding in my right ear, amplifying the world’s sounds, I can almost feel “normal” when I am around other people. Conversation has its difficulties, but usually most people are accommodating in a large crowd. Often, the participants will even say “Oh, no one can hear in a crowd like this anyway.” We all laugh and enjoy the evening, mostly filled with jokes, and the occasional drink.

One place where I consistently feel my hearing loss, however, is when my dad asks if I want to take a ride on the boat. Any time I go near water, I have to leave my hearing aid at home. Most hearing aids are not water proof, and my model is incredibly sensitive to even the slightest drop of moisture. At the beach, I can still pose as “normal” because I spend so much time body surfing over the waves until I am carried back to shore.

In the hull of a Sunfish, however, I cannot pretend my loss does not exist because I have no hearing aid to help me sail across the sea. As I put on my life vest and help my dad take the boat into the water, however, the dizziness accompanying my loss is accompanied by embarrassment. The only other children who sail with their parents are ones who do not yet know how to sail themselves. By the time they are twelve, they can man Optis and Sunfish by themselves.

Everyone else my age has been sailing on their own for years. Seeing as I am one of the few who still sails with a parent, I cannot help but feel ashamed, even when I know I should not. At this point in my life, I have opted not to sail altogether. Continue reading

Harry Potter and the Surprise Tympanoplasty

Since my eighth birthday, I had been waiting for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I had become hopelessly addicted to the series after receiving Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a birthday gift. Initially, my mother read them to my brother, Doug, and me as bedtime stories. As I got older and my reading skills improved, I took each new book for myself and read it in a matter of days.

Having gone through the series so quickly, I was gunning my engine to read the last book and see how it ends. In spite of the sticky July heat, I came to Borders dressed in my “Gryffindor Girl” outfit: a white blouse with a black and red kilt and a Gryffindor tie I stole from Doug’s closet.

Mom had originally reserved one copy for the entire family, and through our wait to pick it up, she was yelling at me about spoiling the book. While Mom and Doug take months to finish a single book, I can easily read one in a matter of days—weeks, if I am feeling slow. For the previous two sequels, I had accidentally spoiled the books for both of them by crying over important character deaths. Continue reading

The Before and After of Biology Class

Anybody who asked me about biology six years ago would know my unwavering response: “I hate biology and can’t wait for it to be over!”

Biology started strong with top grades, but within a month they started declining — a consistent trend in my science classes between ages twelve and sixteen, due to an increase in class pace and my hearing loss worsening. The teacher would use strange words I could not inference and lecture while drawing on the blackboard. The strain to hear in such circumstances often ended in migraine headaches.

I thought junior year would be free from this trend, after my surgeon declared me “cured” with the success of my ninth surgery. When it turned out not to be, I blamed my poor performance on simply being stupid, until I realized that my teacher’s voice fell right within my worse frequencies. The migraines should have been a dead giveaway, considering they had a knack for arriving right in the middle of biology class. Denial and my fear of permanent disability kept me from admitting I could not hear, causing me to not get a hearing aid until after biology came to an end.

Fast forward to the year after I graduated from college; I opened an invitation to my high school reunion, initially thinking that I did not want to go. My mind changed, however, when I saw the one of the classes alumni would be able to visit: “Ms. Warren: Biology.” Continue reading