Zanna with her first hearing aid.
Are you familiar with the cartoon “Charlie Brown”? You are? Oh, cool. Then you’ll know that whenever Charlie and the other Peanuts spoke to grown-ups, like parents or teachers, they’d respond with an incoherent “Mwahmwahmwah, wah wah mwah.” This gibberish was understood only by Charlie and the other Peanuts. But to us as an audience, it was utter nonsense.
I might not be a hip person, meaning I’m not considered “happening” or “groovy,” but I am hip to being a hearing-impaired person or what I call a “HIP.” HIP? Yeah, that’s right. I’m a HIP. To me, all of you hearing people are HICCUPs (Hearing, Ignorant, Clueless, Cavalier, and Unaware People). For those of you HICCUPs who know me, I hope this post will enlighten you, so you’ll understand how to co-exist with HIPs in the future — like me!
Since birth, I’ve been deaf in my left ear and hard of hearing in my right. As a HIP, sometimes all I hear is “mwahmwahmwah, wah wah mwah” when HICCUPs speak on a daily basis. I’ve written a few posts about my late sister, Terrie, who was born completely deaf. Unlike me, she loved being deaf. Had she been given the opportunity to restore all of her hearing, she would’ve said, “No, way! I like being deaf!” I would take normal hearing in a heartbeat. Growing up, I hated being a HIP. I still do. I want to be a normal HICCUP.
As a small child, I had goals and dreams that required close-to-perfect hearing. But after years of trying to make it in a hearing world, I realized those dreams were never meant to happen. I thought I was defective — damaged goods. I don’t talk about those dreams anymore because…well, just because.
Though I consider myself an above-average writer, had someone told me years ago that I would be a writer, I would’ve stomped my feet in protest and screamed, “But I don’t wanna be a writer! No wanna!” Stomp!
Terrie with her first hearing aid.
My sister was obviously deaf, and HICCUPs — including family members — always made an effort to make sure she understood them. Terrie was taught how to speak at an early age and was a master at lip reading. She survived in the hearing world just fine, not just because she could speak and read lips, but also because of her fearless and bold personality.
I rely heavily on lip reading as well, but because I don’t sound deaf, HICCUPs often forget that they need to look directly at me when speaking to me instead of just “mwahmwahmwah, wah wah mwahing” as they walk past me.
Deafness is an invisible handicap. As a result, HICCUPs have a hard time understanding the plight of being a HIP. You cannot speak to me from across a room. If you want me to understand you, then you have to take the time to walk up to me, get my attention, and speak clearly.
Even though I am severely hard of hearing, I’m not fluent in sign language, so I fit in neither the hearing nor the deaf society. My “mwahmwah” world can be very isolating and lonely. I can’t hear in noisy situations. I can’t follow conversations, so I tend to say inappropriate things. You know, like someone might say, “It rained here,” and I’d respond with, “Reindeer? I don’t see any reindeer.” I can’t hear in stereo, so when everyone turns to the right in response to loud noise —“Hey, look what’s that sound?” — I turn to the left. Oops! And then to the right. For what it’s worth, though, that loud noise doesn’t scare me as much as it does a HICCUP. Touché.
I know it irritates HICCUPs to have to repeat themselves, so sometimes I pretend to understand and say, “Oh, okay” when in reality, I have absolutely no idea what they said. I just did it recently, pretended. I was at a drive-up and asked the cashier a question. She responded with, “Mwahmwahmwah.” I was clueless as to what she said. I couldn’t even hear her voice, but I said, “Oh, ok” and drove off.
My father, Emo, was also profoundly deaf. He, too, pretended to understand. But we knew better. It was just an act. He was in assisted living, and the caretakers were unaware that he didn’t understand them. He’ll simply nod his head, fooling them into thinking that he understands. “Emo. Are you hot? Do you want the window open?” He’ll nod, but then he can’t figure out why they’re opening his window when it’s obvious to him that he’s cold.
I’d always had trouble in the classroom, even if an instructor spoke loudly and clearly. A few years ago, I attempted to go back to school to update my degrees. Some instructors I could hear A-OK! Others, not so much. It was frustrating when I could clearly hear an instructor respond to a student’s question, but the answer was meaningless because I couldn’t hear the question in the first place. I didn’t want to slow down the class and ask anyone to repeat the question. Needless to say, I’ll probably never set foot in a formal learning environment again.
As a young child, I wore an old-fashioned transistor hearing aid. The aid itself was about a 2” by 3” device that was fastened to my chest. Sticking out of it was a very noticeable, white wire leading up to my ear, which attached to a customized earpiece. I wore it for a few years until a doctor deemed I no longer needed it, but I’m not sure why. At any rate, I was thrilled to get rid of it because it’s one of the many things that made me different from HICCUPs.
Later, in college I got another one in which the entire hearing aid fit into my ear — still noticeable, but better than the alternative. I hardly wore it, though, because it couldn’t drown out exterior noise.
In the early 2000s, I upgraded to a tiny hearing aid that was hardly noticeable and was better at minimizing exterior noise. Though I liked that it was barely visible, it was still inadequate in noisy environments, but I did (and still do) wear it more than the previous model.
A few years ago, I was fitted for The CROS system. (Remember, I’m completely deaf in my left ear.) This is how it works: My right ear has a regular hearing aid, just like in the past. The one in my left ear isn’t a hearing aid at all. Instead, it is a transmitter that sends signals to my right ear. If you snap your fingers in my left ear, my right ear hears them as if you’re snapping them in my right ear. Pretty cool, huh? Not so fast. Some people love them; some don’t. I do not. The idea behind The CROS system is brilliant, but here’s where the problem lies, at least for me.
My entire life I have turned my head to the left so that my right ear picks up sounds and voices. Not turning my head with The CROS system is just strange. I just never got used to the idea of letting someone speak into my left ear. Had this technology existed in my youth, perhaps I would’ve adjusted to it more readily.
With or without a hearing aid, much of what I understand depends on a person’s voice. Experts state that men’s voices are more easily understandable than women’s because their pitch is lower. I completely disagree. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a man’s voice or a woman’s; it is how clearly one speaks. Some voices come in loud and clear or “20/20.” People with these kinds of voices don’t need to be looking directly at me. I can hear those kinds of voices on the phone easily.
Now, some people I simply cannot understand even when I’m inches away from them and struggling to read their lips. Think a two-hour lecture is a drag? Imagine how much harder it is for a HIP like me. I strain to lip read only to capture snippets of clear speech in between “mwahmwahs.” After two hours, it’s so exhausting that my brain hurts.
I thought I’d try to clue you HICCUPs in that I can’t hear by wearing a badge at work that reads, “Hearing Impaired.” It rarely works. Do I really need to tattoo the word “Deaf!” on my forehead? It’s pretty frustrating when I tell people that I’m a HIP, and they respond with, “Oh! I’m sorry! I was just saying that mwah mwah and mwah in the mwah mwahmwahmwahmwah.” Sigh.
What’s really demoralizing is when HICCUPs “mwahmwah,” only to “mwahmwah” louder when I say, “What?” Then they get obnoxious after several “whats?” and start over enunciating, “DO…YOU…KNOW…WHERE…THE… SODA… MACHINE… IS?!”
My sister would never tolerate someone speaking to her like that. She’d point her index finger in their face and angrily retort, “I am deaf!” Her demeanor was very explicit, “Don’t you talk to me like that!” I, however, tend to retreat into my lonely world and cry at yet another blow to my already battered self-esteem. Timid me?
Back to those “mwah mwah” voices…
Listening to those kinds of voices on the phone proves to be beyond challenging. It’s always the important calls I don’t want to miss, like a doctor’s office, insurance companies, or a government agency. While their voices are pleasant and professional, I can only pick up bits and pieces of what they’re saying. Sometimes, I absolutely cannot understand a word they’re saying, right down to the telephone number! You should hear my voice mailbox filled with whispered mwah mwahs.
A typical message may sound like this to me: “Hi. This is mwahmwah from mwahmwah office and I’m mwahmwah wah wah mwahmwah. If you’ll mwahmwah mwahmwah, you can mwahmwah at ninesevenzero wah wah …tree through tuh tee.”
I have to keep playing the message over and over while pressing my ear into the phone just to get that much of what he or she says. Calls like these always require a call-back, but frequently, because I have no idea who is calling, what office they’re from, or what their phone number is, it usually results in something being canceled, like an important doctor appointment, for example.
When I call at a later date to find out why I’ve been canceled, I’m usually told that they called and left messages three times. Since I didn’t call back, my account (or whatever) had been canceled. As they’re telling me this, I have to tell them I’m deaf and to speak into the phone!
Oh, and by the way, I can’t hear my home phone ring. I could have the phone sitting right in my lap. I simply cannot hear it. If by chance I do hear it or I see the light flicker, it’s a toss-up if the person on the other end will be audible.
I have a better chance at hearing my cell phone ring, but to make things frustrating, I can’t hear while I’m on my cell. In a nutshell, I can’t hear my landline ring, but I can hear better once I’m on it. I have a better chance of hearing my cell phone ring, but can’t really hear when I’m on it. Argh and frustrating.
Equally discouraging are the HICCUPs who say, “You don’t look disabled. You can hear me just fine.” Oh yeah? I challenge you to morph yourself into a miniature observation drone and watch me in action at work. You’ll see how much I struggle with hearing (or lack thereof).
I do have to chuckle, however, at the people who say excitedly, “You know what you should do? You should work for the movie studios writing the closed captions!” “No…no…no, no, no,” I have to tell them, “I…I’m the one who needs closed captions. They need HICCUPs — like you! — to write them for little unhip HIPs like me. Yeah. But thanks for thinking of me…yeah.”
I had a friend who had LASIK eye surgery to correct her vision. Until then, she wore glasses most of her life. The surgery was a life-changing event for her and she couldn’t speak to anyone for days following the procedure. Though I was happy for her, I didn’t understand why she felt so overwhelmed. I didn’t want to minimize or disrespect her feelings, or I’d be doing to her exactly what people do to me. When I told her I didn’t understand, she asked me, “How would you feel if suddenly you could hear?” To be quite honest, I just don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Here’s why.
She had always been able to experience perfect vision with the aid of glasses. Furthermore, vision doesn’t require interacting with people. You put on a pair of glasses and presto! Perfect vision. Task completed.
For me, even with the best hearing aids in the world, I can still hear only a fraction of what a normal person picks up. I’ve never been able to hear “20/20” with the use of hearing aids – quite possibly I never will. In addition, I still have to interact with HICCUPs who insist on “mwahmwahing.” Hearing aids help, but they certainly don’t solve many of my communication problems.
I’d like to mention something else. You’ve all had your hearing tested, right? That’s where they put you in a soundproof booth and stick a pair of headphones on you. Then, they send sounds at various pitches (measured in hertz) at different intensities (measured in decibels (dB)) through the headphones. If you can’t hear a pitch, they raise the decibel until you can hear it.
The results are then written on what’s called audiogram. Speech range is between 250 and 4000 hertz. Hearing is considered normal if it falls within the -10dB to 0dB range. After they test both ears at varied pitches, they add noise to one ear to determine if you can still hear the sounds.
Hearing in my right ear starts out okay at the lower pitches (see audiogram), but then goes down pretty drastically as the pitch rises, which is the speech range. Sometimes, audiologists won’t even test my left ear because they know it’s dead.
Listening to instructions via headphones in the dreaded soundproof booth is just…awkward. “What?” I say as I try to remove the headphones. “Keep the headphones on,” they say loudly as they point to their own imaginary headphones. I always manage to make their days exciting. I wonder if I’d ever make it as a recording artist. Don’t laugh!
After they finish the sound tests, next comes the word recognition exam. In this unrealistic soundproof booth, they’ll play this pre-recorded male voice — no surprise there — that instructs you to repeat a list of very simple words.
A word recognition test sounds much like the following:
“SAY THE WORD… ‘BASE BALL!’”
“SAY THE WORD…‘GOOD!’”
“SAY THE WORD… ‘DOG!’”
Let me tell you something, folks. This is not the same thing as hearing in the real world! I realize that the purpose of all the hearing tests is to create a real-life hearing environment in order to customize hearing aids.
But here’s my problem with the word recognition test. They use rudimentary words that we’ve used all of our lives. They never use graduate level words like discombobulate or magnanimity. How about obsequious or propitiate? Why can’t they use words like proprioception or vestibular? Plus, his voice is so loud and crystal clear that I can actually “read his lips.” Not many people in real life speak thatclearly.
I lived in L.A. for about 12 years. (I didn’t like being a small town girl and couldn’t wait to be a big city girl, so that’s where I went.) When I first moved there, I was talking to an employment agent on the phone who was giving me directions to an interview somewhere in the big city of L.A. “Turn left on La Cienega,” she said. “La Tieneda?” I asked. “La Cienega,” she repeated. “La Cieneda?” I asked. I then requested her to spell it, to which she obliged, “L-A, space C-I—,” she said. “Is that C as in cat or T as in Tom?” “C as in cat, I-E-N,” she continued. “Is that N as in Nancy or M as in Mary?”
Wow! What a way to make a good impression! Of course, I didn’t want to say I was a HIP because I didn’t want to blow my chances of getting the job. (I know. I know. It’s illegal to discriminate, but how the heck do I prove I didn’tget the job because I’m a HIP?)
That, my dear Googs, WordPressers, and Blogspotters, is hearing in real life! It ain’t no soundproof booth. So, after I lived in L.A. for a while and became familiar with some of the major street names, I knew exactly where to go when someone would say, “Turn on La Cienega” or “Go south on Cahuenga Boulevard” or “Go east on Centinella.”
I’ve always admired female HICCUPs in offices who can so effortlessly handle multi-line phones. In contrast, I tend to clam up when a phone rings. It’s even worse talking into a portable two-way radio (aka walkie-talkie) as I sometimes do at my place of employment. I envy those who can so casually “walkie and talkie” in such an easygoing manner. Even more impressive is how they can have a laid-back conversation about something pretty important — while walking or running, I might add. (I guess why they call it a walkie-talkie.) So radio (or walkie-talkie) dialogue kinda sounds like the following (to HICCUPs, of course):
John: “John to Jim? Do you read?”
Jim: “Yeah, go ahead.”
John: “Uh, we have a pretty major water spill on the dock.”
Jim: “Copy that. I’ll get that taken care of.”
John: “Copy that. Thanks.”
Jim: “Jim to Sean?
Sean: “Yeah, go ahead, Jim.”
Jim: “Hey, can you get your entire crew to the dock to clean up a big water spill
Sean: “Roger that.”
To me, that conversation includes quite a few more “mwahmwahs.” (How they “copy” anything is beyond me. And who’s Roger, anyway?) Plus, listening over the static and “clackety clacks” on the radio just makes it all the more intimidating. At times, though, I have no choice but to use a radio, and when I do, I’ll grab someone in close vicinity and ask him or her to be my ears. I’ll take a deep breath, press and hold the button, and wait for the beep. Then, I’ll say something like, “Uh…Zanna to John? Can you come over to the dock?” Then, I turn the radio to my victim (the one I snagged) who listens and says to me, “He’ll be right here.” Then, I say after the beep, “Copy that” just to sound cool. Sometimes, however, I surprise myself and do quite well! But, that is a rare occasion indeed.
Here’s another one of my “mwahmwah” moments. I casually create picture videos for birthdays, anniversaries, and celebration-of-life memorials. I don’t ever use copyrighted music — like Jason Aldean or Guns n Roses — lest I be sued! Rather than pay a fortune for well-known artists, I use royalty-free music from the PremiumBeat website, which has thousands of recordings of different genres. For a minimal fee, I can use one recording in multiple projects. Pretty cool!
So, I have spent a lot of time listening to various recordings trying to find that perfect song for a particular project. After listening for hours on end, I began to notice that in every single recording, a robotic-sounding voice kept repeating every few seconds throughout the entire recording, “Mwahmwahmwah Wah WAH! Mwahmwahmwah Wah WAH!” Every…single…recording.
So, I finally wrote an email to PremiumBeat stating that I really liked their music, but in every recording, a robotic voice kept drumming the same beat (pun intended). I went on to say that it might sound good with some genres, but I didn’t think it sounded good in the music I wanted to use. I asked if it could possibly be taken out, thus customizing the recording.
Somebody from Premium wrote back and asked, “Are you referring to the voiceover that says, ‘Premiumbeat.com’? If so, that is a watermark that we place on preview files to protect our artists. You will receive a clean copy without the voiceover upon placing an order for the track.”
Facepalm! Yes, indeed! The “Mwahmwahmwah Wah WAH!” I was hearing was, in fact, very clearly saying, “Premiumbeat dot COM!” I really had to laugh out loud at that one. It still makes me laugh. I wish I could laugh at every embarrassing misunderstanding I make. But, sadly, I don’t.
All my life, I wanted so badly to be accepted by HICCUPs. I wanted to be considered normal. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t hear. To add insult to the injury, people have been quite nasty and have called me unflattering and hurtful names like space cadet, ditzy, and airhead. I didn’t have Terrie’s knack for calling people out on their ignorance. Even teachers and bosses didn’t think very highly of me as was evidenced by lack of professional and educational opportunities.
I’ve spent my life trying to make my mark in a society that very clearly viewed my handicap as an inconvenience. I tried so hard to attain the goals that were the very essence of who I am, but I finally accepted that they weren’t meant to be.
Are you still with me here? No, don’t go yet. I have just one more, tiny, little thing to say to all of you HICCUPs out there. I’ve been deaf all of my life, but for many of you, deafness might just very well become a part of your life as well to some degree. Yep, that’s right. If you’re like most of us, no matter what your age, chances are you probably jammed to loud music in your youth (and not-so-youth). Come on! Admit it! Large speakers, headphones, ear buds, and, heaven forbid, loud concerts!
Well, I have news for you. Slowly but surely, damage is being done right before your very…um… ears. If you’re over forty, it won’t be long before Van Halen’s “Panama” starts to sound like “Padded Bra.” Or maybe you’ll wonder if The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” was really about a “steak and a knife.” Perhaps you’ll know why I didn’t understand why “two chics and a pair of dice” had anything to do with Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise.”
So, when Prince’s “Kiss” starts to sound like “I just wanna extradite your kids,” or “the artichokes begin to dream” while you’re listening to the theme from the hit show, “Big Bang Theory,” I will gleefully welcome you into my not-so-hip world as you become a HIP like me! Then, you’ll understand what I’ve been understanding — or rather, misunderstanding — my entire life. And then I won’t be so misunderstood. Mwahmwah, wah? Yeah. Thanks for, um, listening.