How it Feels to be Colored (and Hearing Impaired) Me

I borrowed my title from Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” These days I have been reflecting on what it means to be a Black woman with a “disability.” I feel strange using that terminology, though, because I tend to agree more with the Social Model of Disability which treats disability as a set of socially constructed and enforced norms that posit bodies as “normative” and “Other.” In practical terms, this is when I do not feel “disabled” unless I am in social situations where people are assume that everyone else is “like them”- that is, able perceive, inhabit and move about spaces in the same manner as they are able.

I was just reading an article entitled, “The Impact of Concentration Fatigue on Deaf Children Should be Factored In,” and it made me think of how, even as an adult, I fight a persistent fatigue in social situations. I’ve written about this fatigue in blogposts entitled, “Hearing Loss, Hearing-Loss” and “Hearing Loss, Hearing-Loss, Part II.”

In the first article I linked above, the author writes:

But I do also think the fact that the impact of deafness doesn’t just manifest itself in communication is ever really that well understood. It’s about the energy involved in lipreading and being attentive all day long.

Processing and constructing meaning out of half-heard words and sentences. Making guesses and figuring out context. And then thinking of something intelligent to say in response to an invariably random question.

It’s like doing jigsaws, Suduku and Scrabble all at the same time.

For deaf children and young people, especially, I don’t think this impact is as widely recognised as it should be. Advice to teachers on working with deaf children tends to talk far more about language and communication, rather than concentration fatigue.

That’s exactly what it is- piecing together contextual clues by reading lips, approximating whatever sounds my ears can make out, and constantly being vigilant for questions directed at me. In spite of all of this, I just answer, “Ok,” to questions that require a yes or no answer, or questions that demand a fleshed-out answer. In response, people tend to speak louder or exaggerate their enunciation, neither of which brings clarity (or worse, perceive me as “dismissive” or “aloof”). Higher volume does not mean that I can understand you (this is why “turn up your hearing aid” doesn’t work!). It just doesn’t. And, too often, exaggerated enunciation distorts your lips, so I can’t effectively lip-read.

It’s a tiresome burden to inhabit social spaces in which it is perfectly “acceptable” for people to make off-hand remarks like “are you slow?” “are you deaf?” when asked to repeat themselves or clarify a statement. Sometimes I want to answer, “Yes, I am Deaf/HoH.” Sometimes. Other times, I patiently explain that I need for them to communicate in a clear manner without the exaggerated gesticulation and unnecessary loudness. And yes, it takes a bit longer for me to process auditory stimuli because it takes longer for me to piece together sounds with words with complete sentences with context. “Hearing” is a cognitive process- it is not mere “hearing.” For me, it’s about working with congenital and progressive auditory nerve damage. “Hearing” does not mean comprehension.

I’m keeping it short today. Thanks for reading.

3 Comments

  1. Ever since I discovered your tweets I’ve come to appreciate your extraordinary gifts for writing and getting us to think (and feel) more deeply and broadly. My soul has been enlightened. TY for sharing.

  2. I love your article on this! I can relate to it 100%. I am individual with a hearing loss as well. Been wearing hearing aids since I was three as well as lip reading! It is very tiresome and nerve wrecking at the same time being in social spaces. Keep up the great work. I just discovered you tonight and read ample amount of your articles. Look forward to following and reading more.

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