As a person who is deaf/hard of hearing and uses bilateral cochlear implants to hear, communicating during the pandemic has been auditorily, mentally, psychologically and even physically challenging.
Auditorily, I struggle to hear people speaking behind masks which cut off any visual cues that might help me and physical distancing means that their voices will be softer. Masks with clear windows or even face shields can provide additional visual cues but at the expense of compromising the speech signal even more.
Mentally, the additional cognitive load that is required to make sense out of the bits and pieces of what I hear and don’t hear has me exhausted by the end of the day.
Psychologically, I get frustrated and angry and sad and feel all the feels, because communication is so hard but at the same time I crave (SAFE!) interactions with people outside of my home.
Physically, I struggle not to drop and break my cochlear implants which cost about the same as a decent used car, as I take my masks on and off and everything gets tangled in my hearing equipment, my glasses and my long and flowing COVID hair (which is the longest it has been in at least 30 years).
The other phenomena that I have been experiencing and apparently, many of my other deaf/hard of hearing friends have, too, is that I find myself leaving my cochlear implants OFF more and more hours per day compared to pre-pandemic times. I affectionately call this “deaf o’clock”. With everyone being home, extra sounds, the need to concentrate on tasks at my computer…it’s just easier to leave my ears off. A consequence of this, though, is that it means I am not stimulating my brain as much with auditory input which results in poorer speech comprehension ability (i.e., being able to understand what people are saying). Think of it as “not practicing your ability to hear and understand” because we are essentially sitting here in silence. It’s like trying to pick up French again if the last time you used it was in high school French class.
So, on the one hand, the pure physics of sound being compromised by masks and physical distancing preclude me from hearing my best through my cochlear implants. On the other hand, I’m not perhaps at my peak performance because I’m not practicing enough. The end result is the same…I struggle to hear and I’m exhausted.
I’ve decided to take all of these social media reminders and prompts for self-care to heart. Some of you may not agree with this tactic or don’t feel safe doing this but I feel my visual and observational super powers kick in when I do this…I just go out in public with my EARS OFF and put the communication burden on the other person.
You know what? Deaf people who don’t/can’t use hearing aids or cochlear implants and hear nothing have always done this and they’ve survived and thrived. Communicating with people behind masks is not that different for them.
I mainly do this when I go to the grocery store. Outside of home and work, this is basically where I go the most. It’s completely LIBERATING to put on a mask like every other person who doesn’t have to worry about things getting tangled or situating it just right between my eyeglasses’ earpieces and my cochlear implant processors. The silence as I enter into a store is a bonus. While cruising up and down the aisles to fill my cabinets and refrigerator, following the one way arrows and keeping at a distance does not require any hearing ability – it’s the check out that has always made me anxious. I see the mask moving so I know they’re saying something but I may have no idea because not only are they behind masks, they’re also often behind a plexiglass shield which further dampens sound.
I used to get really stressed and lean in to hear, sometimes people would pull down their mask and I would recoil and tell them to please put their mask back on (communicating with me is NOT more important than public health and safety) or I would go into full geek mode and pull out my smartphone and use a speech-to-text app where they would talk and their speech would be transcribed on my phone. That’s a heavy load!
What I realized is that now when I enter into the store in deaf-stealth mode and reach the checkout counter, I point to my ear and shake my head, make eye contact with the checker, we share a slight nod of understanding and voila! They get that I don’t hear. This is where the magic happens….THEY are constantly looking up and down and around, point at things like the ever-rising cost total (did I really need those Pop Tarts?), give me a thumbs up and thumbs down to confirm I understood their pantomime and you know what?? IT WORKS! They got their message across, I understood and I didn’t have to work as hard because they accommodated me rather than me having to work harder to come up with these accommodations where the burden is all on me. If something isn’t clear, they’ve even pulled out pen and paper to ask me a question.
I don’t do this for every situation, just ones where I feel that I can take a break and the communication is not that urgent and not worth the stress. I also do this when I’m out and about and alone – I wouldn’t do this if I have to communicate with my family, friends or co-workers.
So, if you see me out in public and call my name and I don’t answer – please don’t be offended. I’m not ignoring you. I just don’t hear you.
Disclaimer: when I used to travel by airplane, I would also go into deaf-stealth mode because the quiet is blissful and gate agents seemed to remember the deaf woman who doesn’t talk vs. the deaf woman who has clear speech and they’re more likely to accommodate me with any flight changes. But that’s a blog post for another day…