Invisibly Handicapped

Pellets of silence. That’s what they will become if the rancorous raindrops should dose my hearing-aids. The gift that technology has given me changed my life in many a way. Yet, the fear of getting caught in a downpour is one of the least expected ones. Hoods and umbrellas are my shields and bucklers. Yet they are easily overcome by rain’s cantankerous cousin, the wicked wind. Together they send their assaults under the umbrella and beneath the hood. I’m often left with no recourse but to take them out and stuff them in my pocket, wrapped in my hand. I’m left not completely deaf but the world takes on a muted tone without them. It’s akin to the difference between hearing noisy neighbors through an open window and a closed one. But at least I have the susurrus sounds.  As I was about to find out, I dodged a terrible blow.

I have a homework assignment to research how libraries serve disabled populations. I decided to research how hearing impaired patrons are served in libraries. One of the first phrases I ran across was “invisibly handicapped.” That stopped me in my tracks. I’m on my second set of hearing-aids. My first set was a dark brown that faded into hair. This pair is painted a bright silver which stand out among my brown locks. I did that precisely because I wanted them to be visible. Thankfully, the grey that’s encroaching on my temples isn’t yet dominant. I wanted them to be visible because with my youth and my stature, I don’t appear to be someone that’d have hearing trouble. So I hope the silver sticking out from behind my ears will clue people in and we can avoid those awkward exchanges where I ask them to repeat themselves and they look at me with confusion and perhaps a little bit of scorn thinking I’m not paying attention. Even after nearly a decade of wearing them I’m still getting acclimated to them. These thoughts roll through my head as my eyes roll down the page of the article. That’s when the second phrase hits me like the Atlas’ load: “prelingual deafness.”

I read on to find out the implications of such a phrase. If someone is born deaf, how do they learn to read? Both speaking and reading are phonetically based. But how can you learn when you have no concept of how phonemes sound? As a result of this, illiteracy rates among the innately deaf are high. (NOTE: the article I read was 20 years old, so perhaps things have changed. I intend to find out, but even if they have that doesn’t take away from the impact this nugget of info had on me.) I think there are few worse things in this world than illiteracy. I love to read. I also failed my first hearing test in kindergarten, a mere 5 years from falling into this prelingual category. The thought of coming so close to being illiterate shook me to my very soul. I had to stop reading. My breath became shallow and ragged. My body had that tautness that follows a scare.  It took a few moments before I could continue the article.

The accommodations recommended to libraries began to show the article’s age, particularly the Teletypewriters. They’re typewriters with a screen that hook up to a phone. The hearing librarian talks to an operator and the deaf patron gets a transcription of their response. They can in turn type their own response and the operator relays it. I’ve actually only used this once, about a decade ago. I was out in San Diego visiting my father’s father who’s the progenitor of my situation. It was a clumsy experience filled with pregnant pauses and stumbling silences. It was a solution but mercifully, it’s fast becoming outdated. In its place is text messaging and online chatting. While there are delays in responses, it’s more expected. Verbal communication is much faster than written and as such you don’t expect instantaneous replies to a text message.

I’ve got my own personal chicken or the egg conundrum: did my strong written communication skills stem from my hearing troubles or did my hearing troubles beget my strong written communication skills? Whichever is the truth, it doesn’t matter. I’m more comfortable writing than I am speaking. It warms my heart to see those “Ask a Librarian” or “Chat with Us” options on library pages. Though they’re more intended as a way to server patrons where they are and not force them to physically come to the library to get a question answered, they also throw a life preserver to those of us swimming in the waters of deafness. Now if the technology gods could come up with a way to make waterproof hearing-aids, I’d be even happier.

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