This is a transcript of a live lit piece I performed at This Much is True in Chicago on June 13, 2017.
A few weeks ago, I was dropping off my film to be developed – I know, I’m probably one of the only people in Chicago still getting film developed, but bear with me – I was dropping off film when the guy behind the counter noticed my hearing aids. He wasn’t much older than me, maybe by a few years. He smiled and told me that he was getting hearing aids soon. He asked me how I liked them so far.
I looked at him. How I liked them? So far? That’s like asking someone how they like having arms. I’ve had hearing aids my whole life, I didn’t just get these things! Why would he think that? We were nothing alike! He was just some old guy and I was… oh no…
That’s when I realized… I’m not special anymore. I’m just another guy who can’t hear. Another adult male with hearing loss. Big deal.
In a few years, I’m going to be sitting around the nursing home, and every one of us will have hearing aids. When you’re old, it’s not special to lose your hearing. It’s just something for your kids to be annoyed by. Everybody who is old has Jeopardy blaring full blast on the tv, that doesn’t make you special.
But once I was very special.
I believe the phrase we use is ‘special needs.’
Some background: I have a moderate-to-severe hearing loss. Despite being born with the initials ‘D-E-F,’ I didn’t lose my hearing until I was three.
Hearing loss isn’t everything just being quieter, like the volume is turned down. Rather, there are several frequencies that I cannot hear at all, while others I can hear just fine. For example, I can’t hear the ‘s’ sound. Never have. Since I can’t hear sibilants, speech is unintelligible without hearing aids. Joy sounds the same as boy, which sounds the same as soy, you get the point.
When I just lost my hearing, my doctor at the time thought I just wasn’t paying attention, so I went to preschool without hearing aids. Not being able to hear anything, I managed to scrape by in my first year of preschool by copying what the person next to me did at all times. I ended up failing preschool, and soon after I received my first pair of hearing aids and a better doctor.
Technology in the early nineties wasn’t anything like it is today. I wore large, tan analogue hearing aids in each ear. They squealed constantly if you put your hand anywhere near them, and they picked up cell phone signals if the weather conditions were just right. I literally used to pick up radio stations and cell phone calls in my ears.
Starting in kindergarten, I wore an FM system, or what we called at the time an ‘auditory trainer.’ The trainer was a large brown box that was strapped to my waist. Loose wires ran from this box to attach to my hearing aids. The teacher wore a microphone, and the trainer transmitted her voice directly into my ears.
Needless to say, I stood out. When I wore this thing, which was every day, I had kids on the playground ask me if I was robot. Not to be mean, rather, they were genuinely concerned that there might be a robot running around.
When you’re hard of hearing as a kid, you have a choice. One, you can try to hide your disability as much as possible, and avoid talking to people. Or two, you can be obnoxiously outgoing and decide you are special because you are different.
I took the really ‘special’ part of special needs to heart.
When I say that I thought I was special, it means that I decided none of the rules everyone else had to go by applied to me.
For example, sometimes I forgot my homework at school. Normally, this meant you couldn’t do it. Game over. However, I went back to the school at 8 at night, and told the janitor that I needed to get into the room. When they told me no, that it was locked and they couldn’t do that, I told them I was hearing impaired. Confused and little scared, they would let me in. Because no janitor is going to get their ass in trouble saying no to the disabled kid.
I also quickly learned how to use my auditory trainer for more nefarious purposes. Teachers would go out in the hallway, where I could still hear them talking through the microphone. I would listen in as my junior high teacher would say something like ‘this class is a bunch of f***ing idiots’ before realizing I could hear him. He was pretty nice to me after that.
In high school, I even taped the trainer on the bottom of a table to spy on a rival group in a competitive social studies project. I had the gear, and I used it.
But I was lucky. I acted this way because I had a family and support network who was proud of me. I never hid that I was hard of hearing, and even ended up teaching classes about it as I got older. It gave me the confidence I needed to keep my head above water.
Because as I got older, once I was in junior high, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with my lack of hearing. There were dances to go to, parties to attend, lunch with large groups, people to talk to, all situations where it was nearly impossible for me to hear what was going on. Despite my best efforts, I felt lost and left out.
But by this time, I had years of experience when it came to being special. I had built my network of friends who knew how to help me, and even better, technology finally caught up. Have you compared your current cell phone to the one you had in the nineties recently? Things have changed a little.
Unfortunately, not everyone is told at they’re special. Many, many hard of hearing kids think that there is something wrong with them. It’s hard enough already to talk to people when you’re a kid and when you’re a teenager, so when you can’t hear, it becomes almost impossible. They grow isolated and people pick on them, and it becomes a cycle that only gets worse.
That’s why we say special needs. It’s not political correctness, it’s a mindset. When you find somebody who has it rough, hard of hearing or otherwise, especially if they’re young, help them out. Tell them they’re important. Not that they’re disabled, or that they should be pitied, or that they’re somehow less because they’re different. It’s just that. They’re different. They can do some things worse, and some better. And we need to treat them that way.
Because, someday, you’re going probably to lose your hearing. And I had it wrong when I was getting my film developed, when I said that I was no longer special now that I’m getting older, now that I’m just another guy who can’t hear.
It’s not that I’m not special, it’s just that you’re all catching up with me. Soon, we’re all going to be special.