Being Hard of Hearing…in a Pandemic

By: Erin Rose Hennessy

Pandemics are hard. I bet most of us never thought we’d have to endure one in our lifetimes. We never thought we’d face layoffs, distance from our loved ones, mask wearing in public, fear and anxiety about ourselves or loved ones getting very sick from the virus. A friend of mine remarked that we as a population are going to be incredibly resilient when this is over. She’s probably right!

One of the things that makes the pandemic even more challenging for me is the fact that I am hard of hearing and rely on reading lips to communicate. All of a sudden, my understanding of grocery store clerks, bank tellers, delivery people, has gone from ninety five percent understanding (as tested when I was in high school) to…well, let’s say ten percent is probably being generous. It might be slightly more when in a quiet environment.

This, as I’m sure you can imagine, has made the world even more isolating for me. As someone who already struggles with mental health issues, being distanced and separated from everyone even more is very difficult. Struggling to hear everyone through a mask is incredibly draining. I can’t have a simple friendly conversation with the cashier anymore. I can’t go to the hair salon, because I won’t be able to understand anything that’s going on.

Something that really has had me worried is what if I get the virus? What if I need to go to the doctor? If that happens, I will not be able to understand anything in a situation that already makes me very, very, anxious. I can’t think about it for too long, because my mind goes to some pretty dark places.

My bank’s lobby has been closed for the past year, and they have all their customers use the drive through. The drive through is basically an intercom. No lips to read, very muffled, staticky voices. Impossible to understand anything. I had to call and set up a meeting with the bank just to get some laundry quarters, and they still wanted me to call from outside the bank to tell them I was there. The bank is located on a busy road. My ability to hear on the phone in a quiet room is probably seventy five percent, if the person does not have an accent of any sort. If there is noise, accents, mumbling, etc, my understanding goes down to probably fifteen percent. If that. There are only two voices I have found that I can understand on the phone one hundred percent. My mom and my dad.

I had to take my ailing cat, who has since passed, to the veterinarian. Another setup where they make you call while waiting outside. Everyone is masked and when your cat is diagnosed with cancer, it’s kind of important to be able to hear. I did appreciate my vet writing out everything she needed to tell me. That’s being an ally!

“What about those clear plastic face masks?” I knew you were going to ask about that. They are not widely distributed and for them to work, the other person (not the deaf person) has to be wearing it. We need to be able to understand them. Know how many I have seen on someone in the past year? One. One grocery store cashier.

“Okay, so you’ve proven that pandemic life is hard for deaf and hard of hearing people. How can we help?”

Number one, ask your loved one how you can help. Don’t assume you know what they need.

Check in on us. Ask how we are doing. Don’t be patronizing or belittling, but be a support figure.

Write things down. Text things. Email things.

Learn sign language if your loved one knows it! Even if you just know a few signs, it can make a difference.

Figure out a way to have unmasked time. My mom got us clear face shields to wear when I visit her backyard patio.

Reassure us (and yourself) that pandemics don’t last forever and soon we will be able to lipread and understand and connect again.

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