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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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 “When “Never Mind” Goes Both Ways”

Hearing, Listening, and The Polar Express

“You must have hated The Polar Express when you were a kid,” my friend Stacy said to me.

The two of us were sitting in our class, Writing for Children, talking about picture books. As the semester came to a close, we were finishing our unit on illustrated stories, and meandered to The Polar Express. Being a Caldecott-winning story adapted into a movie, it was an ideal book for class discussion. Most of my classmates heard it at least once, and had their own stories about hearing it for the first time. Mine was not particularly memorable, seeing as I was nine and the elementary school librarian read it to my class.

At least…I did not think it was memorable until Stacy pointed out a central theme to the story.

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What Can Hearing Impaired People Do to End Stigmas Against Mental Illness?

  • Have you strained so hard to hear that you collapse from fatigue, too exhausted move anything except your eyelids?
  • Has conversation swirled into a vortex, put you in its eye as you try to understand just one word, and then hit you with its back wall of sound?
  • Have you felt so disconnected from your world and other people that you give up hope of living a happy, productive life?
  • Have you seen people talking to you or about you, and immediately reject you with assertions of “nevermind”?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you can certainly empathize with sufferers of depression. Perhaps, in a greater possibility, you have experienced symptoms that can be found in  depression before discovering your hearing loss. Depression’s  signs, such as difficulty concentrating, fatigue, loss of interest in socializing and favorite activities, can also happen before hearing loss is properly managed. Being able to answer this article’s opening questions reveals your empathy, and why Mental Health Awareness Month (last May in the US) should matter to hearing impaired people.

Photo credit: Elizabeth M

As I mentioned in my previous article, depression-like symptoms can be a manifestation of untreated hearing loss. We bear the stigmas of mental illness if our losses are not understood because hearing loss symptoms can have strong resemblance to those of depression. What may seem like a curse, however, can be transformed into a gift if we understand the power that we wield. Stigmas, while being forced upon us by society, can be ended if we choose to speak out.

In discussing depression-like symptoms of untreated hearing loss, we can communicate that health problems, whether physical or mental, are never a choice. We can dispel the notion that being too exhausted to move is the result of “bad behavior”, or that disconnection from others is unwillingness to communicate. Some of us may suffer from chemical imbalances, as well as the strains that come before a hearing loss diagnosis. Others may know they’re hearing impaired, but fear the diagnoses because of hearing aid costs. Regardless of origin, however, we have the capability of empathizing with mentally ill individuals because of the experiences that come before we understand our hearing loss.

What can come of empathizing with mentally ill individuals? You’d be surprised where a little empathy can lead. Nearly all of my closest friends and boyfriends have suffered with a mental illness or condition of some sort—depression, ADHD, Asperger’s, anxiety. Though our symptoms originate from different places, we help each other if and when our symptoms overlap.

Understanding the feeling of sound swirling into a vortex helps me recognize signs of when friends with anxiety or Asperger’s are overwhelmed by noisy crowds. Friends with ADHD taught me techniques to maintain focus in lectures exceeding an hour, and how to listen—a skill with which I still struggle. Relationships have often begun with bonding over fatigued feelings that people who have not experienced depression or hearing loss cannot easily understand.

Without empathizing with people who are mentally ill, I would have spent many of my high school and college years in a painfully lonely place. With only 17% of hearing impaired individuals  in the US wearing hearing aids, the likelihood that I would find another hearing impaired person my age was low. Reaching out to mentally ill individuals started as a means of overcoming loneliness, but became a way of better understanding of the stigma mental illness carries. The stigma can affect hearing impaired people in the presentation of our symptoms, but it is one that we lose when our health problems are made obvious. Even with medication, mental illness can never entirely subside and the stigma never goes away. I lost it once I got a hearing aid, but the stigma will never leave most of my friends and exes.

Maybe some people can stand back when they watch others be ostracized for pains they understand, but I cannot. After experiencing depression-like symptoms from an undiagnosed hearing loss, I cannot be silent as ill friends are stigmatized. We, as hearing impaired people, have amazing power when we take our experiences and use them to help others and end prejudices of all kinds. Symptoms, regardless of origin, are never choices. Making this statement will help people recognize why stigmatizing mental illness is wrong. Outside of a doctor’s office, symptom origins should never matter in the treatment of other people. If we stand up to this stigma by discussing overlaps in symptoms,we can try to end the stigma on macro and micro levels.

For the latter, we can get involved through government resources, such as mentalhealth.gov. The former can be achieved through something as simple as opening your heart to another person’s experience. Even small actions are a big step in ending the stigma, as well as learning more through contact with others. Regardless of which method you choose, I hope you get involved in promoting mental health awareness, especially if you could say “yes” to the questions that opened this article.