OK, who remembers the game Marco Polo? Yeah the one where whoever is It has to close their eyes and count while everyone else is randomly in different places around the swimming pool. It yells, “Marco!” and everyone else has to yell, “Polo!” so It will go try to tag the other players based on where their voices are coming from. As an avid hearing-aid-wearing kid swimming without my hearing aid, I was obviously not a fan of this game. I certainly didn’t want to be It. But I wasn’t about to out myself and tell my friends I couldn’t hear them in the pool either. Figuring I’d wing it, I played along, and yes I assumed the dreaded role of It from time to time. The other kids of course thought I was nuts. I’d yell, “Marco!” and they’d respond, “Polo!” Then they’d watch me blindly doggie-paddle past them to the deserted end of the pool, attacking the pool floaties and so forth. After awhile I assumed their brains got numb from the drone of their own hysterical laughter watching my pathetic lack of voice-navigation skills. Mercifully, they’d either get bored and move on to another game or the moms would be yelling for everyone to come home for dinner. Fortunately, as New York experiences all four seasons, pool usage is limited to 2 months, and kids’ attention spans are short so it didn’t often enter anyone’s stream of consciousness that I NEVER did tag anyone.
So what’s up with this story? How did they not know I couldn’t hear them? I had no hearing loss identity.
Hard of hearing children walk a unique path. Their hearing differences are not as obvious as say a deaf child’s so they may “blend in” with hearing peers, using typical speech, enjoying music, perhaps using the phone, etc. Some may see that as a reason to never bring up anything about their hearing. Not even when communication is difficult. People who become hard of hearing or deaf as an adult are also walking a similar path, with a whole lot less time to a. deal with it and b. figure out how they are going to communicate. And on top of it, they are grieving the hearing they have lost. Of course the risk in not saying anything can cause some major miscommunications and/or lead others to conclude that you’re either not paying attention, rude, eccentric, high, or even stupid.
I really believe the key to resolving many of these issues is discovering your hearing loss identity. Not really for the purpose of labeling yourself, but for understanding better and increasing your confidence. These combined help you to be able to understand and explain what your communication needs are. Once you figure out your hearing loss identity, you can find other people you can identify with – someone else who is also deaf or hard of hearing (and thriving!), you can see firsthand their communication strategies, their attitudes, and most importantly how they are living. I really believe this is key, and here’s why:
If you are comparing yourself to a norm and you are the different one, it can cause you to feel as if you are the weak one – the one who “needs help”. How is it possible for someone to have high self esteem if they are constantly thinking of themselves this way. I really get how people can feel ashamed. As a kid, there was just NO WAY I was going to say I needed some special help with something. I’d manage just fine thankyouverymuch. But honestly, I hated being accused of just not paying attention.
I did not meet anyone else with a hearing loss until I was in 4th grade. I had just started in a new school and learned there was another girl in my class that also had a hearing aid. She was a pretty, friendly, popular girl who would leave our class for a period each day. I learned from the other kids she would go meet with a resource teacher because she had “a hearing problem”. When I heard this, I instinctively pulled at my hair to make sure my own hearing aid was covered. But I wondered, how was this not a secret? These kids all KNEW this about her? I was impressed but still not giving it up.
It was a few years later that I met her older sister – who was deaf. Also pretty, and popular, and a cheerleader, she WORE HER HAIR UP! I could see her hearing aid and she was not ashamed. Maybe I didn’t have to be either. Her confidence influenced me and I felt like I was a part of something cool. It really clicked for me then – this was the beginning of knowing my true peers and my hearing loss identity.
If you don’t have deaf or hard of hearing peers most of us would try to blend in with hearing people. Hanging out with hearing people is great of course but if you are constantly the only one who cannot understand everyone in groups, in the dark, in the pool, in class, at the movies, watching TV, at bonfires, the beach, the shooting range (do you get my drift yet – it’s a lot of places), it can be a difficult experience. It’s nice to have peers to regroup and recharge with. There’s a feeling of same-ness in my relationships with other deaf and hard of hearing people that is unparalleled. It’s an empowering thing to understand yourself, have confidence in who you are and peers to identify with.
While figuring out your hearing loss identity, life is a lot like playing a game of Marco Polo. If you’re It, you may feel like you’re often doggie-paddling off into the unknown. But there are many other games to play and many ways to play. The trick is finding one that is the best fit and a supportive team to inspire you!