Illustrated by Evelyn Hsy
As a freshman at M-A, a school with over 2,000 students and only a handful like me, it felt daunting to have to explain what “those things in my ears” were to every new table group or desk partner I had.
Even after I tried to simplify my explanation, some of my hearing peers still didn’t understand what having hearing loss meant: that I’d sometimes seem clueless, that I had to focus much more than them, and that I had to work for the speech and communication skills they take for granted.
I’d tell people, “I can’t hear as well as you.”
“Our teacher wears a microphone so I can hear them better.”
“I might not hear what you say the first time.”
But all to very little avail.
SUHSD and Menlo Park City School District (MPCSD) Hearing Specialist Pam Musladin serves just over five Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (DHH) students at M-A by helping them with self-advocacy, accommodations, and general support. She said, “I know there’s more who might not need my service, but I currently serve 18 in SUHSD.”
For her high school students, Musladin emails her students’ teachers at the beginning of every school year to give them basic information about a student’s hearing loss and general accommodations they should try to implement in class.
Of course, every DHH student views their hearing loss differently and might need different types of support, but here are a few of my biggest pet peeves from my own experiences:
From a DHH student standpoint, my least favorite word holds so much power in its dismissive nature: “Nevermind.”
Hearing “nevermind” left and right when I simply ask people to repeat themselves often feels like they don’t care about including me in the conversation, or they don’t want to hear my input. Maybe they think I’m not really listening if I had to ask them to repeat something, but in reality it’s often because they’re trying to talk quietly in class or we’re in a crowded spot on campus.
Carlmont High School senior Gabe Golomb, who is DHH and wears cochlear implants, said, “I hate when people say something and I’m like, ‘Oh, can you repeat it one more time please?’ and they say, ‘Nevermind.’ This pisses me off all the time because I want to know what they said.”
Especially after we returned to in-person classes, I was shrugging questions off and responding “I don’t know” more frequently, simply because I couldn’t hear what people were asking. By the third time I had to ask peers to repeat something in group discussions, people became visibly annoyed and started dismissing my requests, causing me to just move on.
Instead of sighing out of annoyance or blatantly ignoring DHH people when they ask for something repeated, normal-hearing peers can rephrase what they said initially, speak up, slow down, or break their comment up into shorter pieces to accommodate DHH students. Rephrasing is key, because oftentimes we mishear one part of a conversation and end up misunderstanding the whole discussion.
2. Turning Away Mid-Conversation
My hearing is worse on my left, so I make sure I’m positioned next to people so I can hear them better from my right. When people turn away from me or the group in the middle of a conversation, I start to lose track of what they’re saying because my sense of direction isn’t perfect.
Even without imbalanced hearing loss, it’s common for DHH people to rely on lip-reading or facial expressions to better understand the surrounding context, so having to listen to people facing away from them is more challenging.
In classes, Musladin said a common complaint from her students is that people tend to “mumble from the back or everybody talks over each other at the same time.”
She said, “Peers can do a lot. Really helping DHH students and being patient communicators with them is important. Students could say, ‘Hey, it’s really loud here, let’s go over and talk over here where it’s quieter,’ look at the person when speaking, make sure they’re not covering their mouth, and speak up rather than mumbling. Just being a really patient friend and being aware, like, ‘Oh, your hearing is better on that side, I’m going to move.’”
3. “They’re fine, they have good grades!”
Teachers and peers have told me I’m “doing so well for someone with hearing loss” more times than I can count. When I first tell people I’m hard of hearing, I brace myself for the “but you’re so smart!” response.
Assuming DHH people are “doing fine” simply because they have good grades, might have better speech than you expected, or can understand a conversation dismisses their struggles with hearing loss.
People around me often don’t realize that I’ve probably missed a lot of the conversation going around me in the past. Because of this, I wasn’t as optimistic as my peers about returning to school in-person my junior year. I rely heavily on lip-reading, and masks made this nearly impossible.
The return to in-person school also meant teachers were leaving windows and doors open more, and keeping ventilation on as COVID-19 safety precautions. In some rooms, near loud and busy places on campus, or where ventilation was particularly loud, I had more trouble hearing.
I don’t know what I’m missing, or what I don’t hear in classes. While I’m able to figure most things out using context clues, that doesn’t mean I can catch everything.
Musladin said, “a lot of my students know what someone’s talking about from context, they fill it in, but they’re working hard to do it. And so I’ll have teachers who don’t realize how hard those students are working to do what they’re doing. So they assume that because they’re getting a good grade, or because they’re a good student, that all is well, and they don’t check with them.”
4. Staring at Hearing Devices and Judging Accommodations
Hearing aids, cochlear implants, and Frequency Modulation (FM) systems or microphones in classes are just as crucial to DHH students as glasses and contact lenses are to people who need them, yet I still get stares from people I’ve just met.
People stared straight at my ears a lot more in elementary school—someone asked me if I was wearing bluetooth headphones once—and still stare at my FM system. I’ve used an FM system—a microphone that connects wirelessly to my hearing aids—since kindergarten, but usage varies between students. I use one all the time in school, and my teachers wear the microphone on a lanyard in class, but some only use FM systems occasionally.
Some people also assume that hearing aids or cochlear implants can “cure someone’s deafness,” when in reality these devices can only amplify sound. The sound I hear through my hearing aids is more robotic than what normal-hearing people hear on a daily basis, and my hearing aids don’t amplify sound to their ‘normal’ volume, nor do they get rid of my hearing loss when I’m wearing them.
Accommodations like front row seating, closed captioning on videos, and access to a quiet location for group work also sometimes catch people’s attention. Personally, not wanting to draw attention when asking for my accommodations has caused me to sit through classes without speaking up for years.
Closed captioning, for example, is extremely useful, but something that often goes unnoticed. Golomb said, “Sometimes I wish teachers would remember to put closed captioning on videos when they present them in class. So I have to ask them over and over to do it and it’s kind of annoying, but it’s just something that I’ll have to do.”
5. “Hard of Hearing” instead of “Hearing Impaired”
The term “hearing impaired” suggests that our hearing is “broken” and that we can’t do anything to fix it. It’s a negative phrase by nature, and might make people think it’s best to just give up on DHH people. It also seems to suggest that we are somewhat “less than” or that we can’t succeed the way normal-hearing people can. While it takes more time and work to reach a “normal” level of speech and communication skills, hearing loss doesn’t determine how “whole” someone is.
Instead, saying “deaf” or “hard of hearing” minimizes the alienation of DHH people. Referring to someone as DHH rather than “hearing impaired” carries a more positive connotation, suggesting that their hearing loss is a part of their life, but not something that makes them any less human.
6. “That’s Really Sad,” or Taking Pity
I’m always confused when people seem sad for me when I say I’m hard of hearing. Sure, my hearing loss is permanent because it’s genetic, but it’s not something that deserves such awkward pity.
For example, when I joke about being hard of hearing or occasionally make an “I’m deaf” joke, people tend to stay quiet or get uncomfortable, unable to continue the conversation after me.
Golomb said, “I don’t like when people make a big deal out of it. It’s just a thing that happens to me; it’s not my defining personality.”
Sophomore Faith Schubin is a child of deaf adults (CODA). She said, “Growing up, I got a lot of comments from other people not understanding or knowing I’m a CODA because you can’t really tell from looking at me. When they found out, a lot of people would say, ‘That’s cool,’ or sometimes, ‘That’s really sad,’ which is kind of a weird thing to say.”
Rather than take pity, students like Schubin say we should celebrate and raise awareness for the DHH community. She created M-A’s new Deaf Culture Club with the goal of educating people about the community. She said, “another big goal for me this year is also to try and raise money for charity. I don’t know what particular charities, but it could be maybe funding schools for deaf children or getting supplies to help deaf children in schools.”
She said that creating this club was “something I wanted to do when I was younger, and I know my parents, who are DHH, were excited about it too.”
Respecting DHH people really doesn’t need to be as difficult as it might seem: respect us the same way you’d respect other people, and be patient when we need an extra moment to understand.
Golomb said, “I just want everybody to know that you just sometimes have to be accommodating. Whenever you’re talking to hard-of-hearing students, make sure that they can hear you and be okay with having to repeat what you said. Because we’re not trying to ignore you, we just can’t hear you.”