The group is bantering witticisms back and forth and raucous laughter ensues. I am standing among them, nodding and smiling, and my brain is working hard and at double time. I am trying to string together the words I missed with the words I could hear to form a cohesive sentence. I can do this. But by the time I have put it together (and even laughed) the conversation has swiftly moved on to the next concept or topic. Because of this, I usually will not chime in with a comment; when I do, I have often found that I have entered the dialog with a total non-sequitor. A couple of beats behind, I am out of synch – I have missed the conversation bus. The blank stares, the occasional smirk, the looks between others, or worse, being totally ignored as if invisible tells me so. Because of this, I am now usually a passive participant. Because of this, I am on the outside of many social situations.
Back to the group, who are clearly having a bonding moment of levity. I turn to the person next to me and ask, “What did he just say that was so funny?” That person turns back to me (sometimes they practically have to wrench themselves away from the conversation out of what appears to be a sense of guilty duty) and says, “Never mind, it wasn’t important”. If not that, I will sometimes get “I’ll tell you later”.
Those words. When I hear those words, I feel like I have just been slapped hard in the face, or worse, discarded. I have been reduced. Because that person, who could be a coworker, a friend, a lover, a family member, whether they intended to or not, has just discounted my presence. Those words, to someone who cannot hear well, are hurtful and enraging.
It is my right and my choice to determine what is or what isn’t “important”, and telling me “later” decisively cuts me from the moment and removes me from the opportunity of being on the same page as everyone else. What those words have accomplished is to socially discount me. It has isolated me. Perhaps what was just said was mindless drivel, but it is really up to me to make that discovery. And if it is, so what? Not every single thing in every discourse need be important, or a masterpiece. Sometimes it is the small nothings that allow people to connect. I am disconnected by “Never Mind”.
I realize it can be a pain-in-the-ass for whoever needs to stop and translate. Could it be that it might be inhibiting their own opportunity for socialization to have to pause and make a quick translation of what is going on? If so, how does that feel? Often I don’t need the sentence verbatim. To rephrase or throw in a few key words will usually allow my brain to figure it out and be part of what is happening.
Never mind. It’s not important. I’ll tell you later. To a hearing impaired person, saying those words is comparable to letting a door slam on a person in a wheelchair who is trying to enter a room. It’s like leaving a blind person standing on a curb when you know they are unable to maneuver across busy traffic. It falls far beyond being rude. I have given a lot of thought to this. Perhaps, because those kinds of disabilities are visual – you can see the broken or missing limb, the dark glasses or the cane – there is more of an awareness that seems to induce more of a kindness and reaction in the unaffected person.? Deafness is, for the most part, an invisible disability. It does not seem to generate the same degree of tolerance. Holding the door for the wheelchair, guiding the blind across the street, these simple acts take mere minutes, and to ignore them would be incredibly bad-mannered and uncivilized. But to have to translate, to have to stop yourself amid conversation to cue in a hard-of-hearing person, that takes patience and pausing and repetition – it slows down the flow of your own conversation and socialization, doesn’t it? Is that why people hate to do it? Regardless, it is equally as offensive and unkind.
Just because I don’t hear you does not mean I am not paying attention to the whole picture. Just because I don’t discern everything that is being said doesn’t mean I have not picked up on the joy or anger or excitement or guilt or anxiety or emotional pain radiating from someone’s face, in their movements, their body language, their aura. Sometimes I can see if someone is earnest or dishonest without having to hear any words. Other senses are heightened to compensate for the lost one. Sometimes what I observe is a whole lot more than what is being said.
As my hearing continues to deteriorate, my social world has gotten so much smaller. There are venues where it is just impossible or too exhausting to navigate. Big parties don’t work well anymore. Places with constant, loud music or crowds are no longer fun. I get lost in busy, chaotic scenes. Given this, there have been a handful of people who have graciously, either consciously or unconsciously, shown incredible patience, tenacity and creativity when we are together, and who continue to seek out my friendship, regardless of the extra efforts it might require. They have been willing to work through or overlook the frustration. I thank those who have easily slipped into the habit of rephrasing amid conversation, or those that step forward to make things clear when I am looking a little lost, and those who offer help or give cues before I have to ask for it. I thank those people for their kindness and for being real friends, for it lets me know that our relationship is valued. You know who you are.