Hearing In Pieces

Andy Mineo is a Christian rap artist that has an older sister who is deaf. Growing up, he chose not to attempt to understand his sister because he didn’t understand her disability. He released a song called “Hear My Heart” in 2015, in which he shares about his selfishness and apologizes for never learning to sign in order to communicate with her. I got to see him perform live in November of last year and this song moved me. He began the song by signing about his sister and I realized: this is for people like me. His lyrics throughout the song are so humble and his desire is for the listener to feel the sounds and to understand his heart. Here are the lyrics from the second verse:

I remember your son’s graduation
That’s when I met your friends
And they was all havin’ conversations
But they was sayin’ stuff that I couldn’t understand
Then all of a sudden it felt like, I understood something I missed my whole life
For the first time I was wearin’ your shoes
For the first time I was hearin’ your views
I never knew how complicated life is when you feel so isolated
And I know we don’t speak much
Cause when talking got hard all I ever did was throw the peace up
My big sister Grace, I’m sorry I never learned to sign
And even though you were born deaf
I pray you forgive me for the years I lived blind

Not all people with hearing loss experience things the same way because there are so many different backgrounds and levels of hearing loss. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God, Switched At Birth) says this about different experiences: “In the deaf community, there are different types of people who have different philosophies. Some believe that they should only sign. Some believe they should only speak. Some people say you should use cued speech. Some say you should use cochlear implants. Some say you shouldn’t sign. Some people say you should sign” (NPR, 2010). I’m not even technically deaf in a cultural sense (legally, I totally am). For those of you unfamiliar with the deaf world, I’m technically hard of hearing, and this is my experience with that.

I was born with hearing loss. Due to several ear infections in my early years, my parents didn’t realize that I should be checked for it until I was three. They had taken me to a speech therapist who recommended I get tested. This was when my parents had to make a big decision in how to raise me: hearing or deaf. Since I was already communicating verbally (thank you, speech therapist!), they made the decision to raise me verbally. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I became interested in learning about the deaf culture. I started to teach myself sign language and took classes in community college. If you want to carry on a basic conversation in sign language without any specialized knowledge, I’ve got you. I’ve learned a lot since opening myself up to people like me, but I still have a long way to go.

One thing that is wonderful about the generation we live in is that accommodations are available to me most anywhere. This was something that was actually hard for me to accept, because I’m stubborn and hated that I needed help. If I could, I would’ve figured out how to do everything on my own, but that’s not the easiest thing when one of your major senses is lacking. I also felt like I was trying to take advantage of the system. Sometime in college, I realized that people are more understanding than I thought. I still get stubborn about doing excessive things, but I know what I need. If we’re watching a movie together, you bet I’m going to ask you to put subtitles on. I would rather not let my hearing loss prevent me from enjoying myself.

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With my sister in Disney World. The only recent picture I have that shows my hearing aids.

A big part of my experience with hearing loss has been lip reading. Since I didn’t get my first pair of hearing aids until I was 3-years-old, I developmentally relied significantly on lip reading. Even though it’s something that’s been so engrained in my identity and my experience with hearing loss, it isn’t easy. After all, if a normally hearing person is able to understand 30% of what you said from lip reading alone, they’re considered an outlier (Altieri, Nicholas A., David B. Pisoni, and James T. Townsend; 2011). Another research project looked at the difference between the lip reading accuracy of a person with early-onset hearing loss and a hearing person. This one concluded “[t]he speechreading accuracy of the participants with early-onset hearing loss (M=43.55% words correct; SD=17.48) significantly exceeded that of the participants with normal hearing (M=18.57% words correct; SD=13.18)” (Auer, E. T. & Bernstein, L. E.; 2007). Basically no matter how good you are at it, you still miss a ton. It is pretty hard to get by on just lip reading, and I definitely can’t. That being said, I struggle getting by without it. Communication with people on a daily basis is kind of like putting together a puzzle, piece by piece. I take all of the information I gather from even just a sentence during an interaction and put them all together and hope I completed the whole thing. I take the sounds I’m hearing and match them with the movements your mouth is making. I add this to the information I’ve accumulated from reading your body language and eyes to understand the emotion behind what you’re saying. Every little piece changes how the overall picture looks. Most people are able to put together all these clues subconsciously very quickly, though I’m sure many of you couldn’t do it as well consciously. For me, I have to consciously put together these pieces, which can be exhausting. My brain doesn’t do it automatically because I can’t translate sounds into words the second I hear it. One thing that I have gained from consistently doing this is the ability to be particularly intuitive. Reading your body language and eyes lets me understand people’s unspoken emotions more clearly. I love it because I can tell when something is bothering one of my friends pretty quickly.

With all this puzzle piecing, there are some things that are particularly hard. Crowds are hard. Loud noises and multiple conversations make it hard for me to pick up specific sound cues. Accents are hard. It takes me a little while to get used to a specific person’s lip movement. The lip movements of those with accents are so foreign to me, I have trouble familiarizing myself with the words they are shaping. Mumbling is hard. When your lips aren’t distinctly moving, I cannot decipher what you’re saying. This does not mean I want you to over enunciate. PLEASE don’t do that. It really doesn’t make it any easier. Phones are hard. Relying only on the sounds, no matter how loud my phone is, is just not something I’m good at. Can you blame me? Really, being deaf is hard.

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Being hard of hearing takes a lot of strength to get through the day-by-day life in a hearing world. I’m only human, there’s no way I can do it on my own. My strength to fight to be a functioning member of my community every day comes directly from God. Isaiah 40:31 says “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Boy is that true. Every time I try to glorify my own strength and not give my struggles to Him, I get rundown REAL fast. God is my strength. It is through Him I have the ability to walk and not be faint. He gives me strength in my weakness and grace for every day (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). My only hope is that He is glorified through my experience with hearing loss.

Rosie Malezer says, “Your hearing status doesn’t make you a better person. Your humanity does” (How to Be Deaf, 2016). I don’t want you to feel pity for me or that you are superior. This one time, I had a stranger say, “You wear hearing aids? I’m sorry you have to go through that.” I’m not. Yes, it is difficult, but it’s part of who I am. It’s an aspect of what makes me – well – me.

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