I’ve written about this before, but it’s on my mind again because tomorrow marks 15 years (15 years!!) since the day Dave and I met in person. Before I met him and started hanging out with him, I had really never been around someone with a hearing loss. I learned the hard way that personally having a hearing loss did not mean I was automatically aware of how to communicate with someone else who was hard of hearing. Kind of like how going deaf didn’t suddenly give me the power to understand and communicate in sign language.
I’m the only person in my immediate family with a hearing loss, so I grew up knowing they could help me out if I didn’t hear something. All of my friends, boyfriends and my first husband had normal hearing. I was 33 when I met Dave, so I’d had plenty of time to get used to having other people help me out when my own ears fell down on the job. That was the first big eye-opener for me.
I’d hear something and turn to Dave. “What was that?” He’d shrug and say, “Beats me!” I’d leave the water running in the sink, walk off and forget about because I didn’t hear it. He didn’t hear it either; who knows how much water we wasted before one of us noticed the silent stream gushing forth from the faucet.
We’d go out somewhere, and I would actually have the advantage because I was better at reading lips. The cashier would give me the total, and I wouldn’t really pay attention because I was used to the person I was with being able to hear and relay the amount to me. Dave would be silent – he had no idea either. I learned to be more vigilant, especially in noisy situations. I couldn’t hear well, but I could read lips and thus became the ‘hearing person’ in that situation. Talk about role reversal!
I was used to just talking, probably at a lower volume than normal since my own voice always sounds loud to me (whether I had hearing aids or CIs). I didn’t bother to make sure Dave could see my face, or that I was even in the same room. I’d get no response at all from him and I’d realize, “Huh. What an asshole I am – I’m not even attempting to be considerate!”
It probably took a month or so for me to get used to this, checking my annoyance if he didn’t hear me at first – it was my fault, for not doing what I knew needed to be done for him to understand me. It was so weird to realize I was really bad at being considerate and thoughtful when it came to communicating with the man I loved. It truly was not second nature at all.
When we first met, my hearing loss was a little more severe than Dave’s but in the opposite ear. So he wears a hearing aid in his right ear; I wore mine in my left ear (and the transmitter on my deaf right ear – they were wireless bi-CROS aids). Dave just wears the one hearing aid and is profoundly deaf in his left ear. So we got used to positioning ourselves so our good ears were next to each other. We have a double computer desk and Dave sits to my left; when we watch TV or movies, I sit on his right side. When we go for walks, I’m on his right side. If we’re both in the car, he always drives (that way his good ear is next to me). The only time I drive now is if I’m going somewhere alone – I’m getting a little spoiled, always being able to kick back in the passenger seat! I contribute to our road trips by operating and translating the GPS system for him – half the time he can’t understand what it’s saying, and the other half of the time he chooses to be ornery and ignore the directions while yelling at Maggie (our Magellan GPS…you’ve named yours too, right?!) and telling her she’s crazy.
I learned that even though our hearing losses were a little bit different in severity, being able to read lips gave me the advantage in noisy situations. I got used to being the one to help if he didn’t hear a question from the waitress or cashier or salesperson.
So over the years I learned the tricks to communicating with a hard of hearing person. Make sure they can see you when you talk, and make sure you’re talking clearly…not too loud or soft, no exaggerated lip movements, not too fast or too slow. Dave tends to leave his hearing aid out, especially in the morning, so I try to remember to look at his ear and see if he’s wearing it. If not, I talk louder and stand right in front of him.
If I’m behind him, I’ll gently touch his arm to get his attention. Sometimes this still scares the crap out of him, but I learned a gentle touch is better than a tap or grabbing his arm or something. If there’s a really loud noise (coffee grinder, loud music), I’ll wait until it’s over before I talk. Sometimes I can’t tell if he can hear me or not, so I ask. “Can you hear me? Am I speaking clearly enough?” We both sometimes still do the deaf nod thing with each other, but by now we can usually tell when the other is faking and I, personally, derive great joy from calling Dave out on it.
When I went deaf (almost five years ago now), Dave was so amazingly patient and thoughtful. He never expressed a single iota of frustration over having to repeat himself. He happily learned signs with me and was willing to try whatever I was interested in (we even watched a DVD on cued speech). He never told me, “It’s not important; never mind.” I think patience and kindness are so important – it goes such a long way when someone wants to communicate with you and you take the time to do what needs to be done to facilitate that. No eye rolling, no exasperated sighs, no sharp tone of voice – just kindness and patience. It’s easier said than done!
Now I’m in a weird position where sometimes I hear much better than Dave does, even though I’m technically deaf. I have a much better time understanding people with accents, using the powerful combination of my cochlear implants and speech reading. Many of Dave’s doctors have accents, and they share information we really need to know, especially with his Hepatitis C treatment coming up (it starts April 10th). Whenever he has an appointment with a specialist or for anything other than a routine checkup, I go with. I take notes. I make sure he doesn’t miss anything, and that we advocate for whatever he might need.
It’s been 15 amazing years, and he has taught me so much. It really all started the first time I realized this was going to be a different experience, dating a guy with hearing loss. He was adding milk to my coffee, and he told me to say ‘when’ because he didn’t know how much I wanted. He poured; I said, “When.” He kept pouring, and I thought, What the heck?! Why isn’t he stopping?! It finally dawned on me…he didn’t hear me! I yelled, “WHEN!” and he looked over, startled, just as the cup was about to overflow. And so it began…my hearing loss education.