I have Deaf anxiety. I’ve only come to realise this during the pandemic because of mandatory mask wearing and my inability to rely on lip reading (which I have been unconsciously doing my whole life). I’m fully deaf in my left ear and moderately deaf in my right. Although, I wear hearing aides most of my listening is done with my eyes. To me, listening is a visual act, not an auditory one. I acquire meaning from facial expression, slightest movements and body language. I am a lip reader through and through.
The term “Deaf anxiety” was originally by Deaf disability activist Artie McWilliams. Deaf anxiety “arises from years of stigma and inaccessibility” related to the experience of being Deaf, he explains in a 2017 YouTube video. Dr. Candace McCullough, a psychotherapist and CEO at Deaf Counseling Solutions, says that Deaf anxiety “typically occurs when someone is trying to avoid attracting attention or criticism for possibly not noticing an environmental sound or for not hearing someone’s question or comment.” Some things I get deaf anxiety over include:
- Not being able to hear a question or comment.
- Not being able to hear the direction of a voice calling me in open spaces such as open offices.
- Not being positioned correctly in a room, so that my good ear has more of a chance to hear.
- Not being able to lip read because someone is covering their mouth or they are wearing a mask.
Every task, every new situation requires a lot of thought. For example, I remember walking into a tutorial classroom in my first year at university. I was on high alert. Choosing the right seat is crucial — I must think about positioning myself so that I can not only best hear my professor, but also be able to keep up with discussions that move around the room. This is a daily occurrence, in work and life. Positioning myself in noisy restaurants are harder, but I always try to give myself the best chance to communicate with others in the best way I can. So much concentration is used, and I tire way quicker than I should for someone in my 20s.
It is not that I am ashamed of my hearing loss or my hearing aids. These things are a part of who I am, and I am proud of my identity. I think the challenge comes from years of training myself to pretend that hearing is easy and natural to me. Hearing is not easy. It is hard. It comes from living in a world that is often slow to accommodate and reluctant to understand. I put a lot of pressure on myself to single-handedly compensate for all the challenges my disability presents, rather than asking the world around me to be accommodating; and it is exhausting.
So, what can you do to assist Deaf and hard-of-hearing people like me?
- Face the person directly when you talk and make sure your face is in good light, so we can see all visual cues to aid us in following the conversation.
- Avoid shouting as this makes your words less clear. Speak normally.
- If meaning is getting lost, try saying something in a different way. Rephrase words instead of repeating the same words over and over.
- Let the person see all of your face. Do not put your hands in front of your face. If you are wearing a mask, try to use your hands more to convey meaning.
- Reduce background noise (e.g. if there is a TV in the background turn it to silent).
- Consider their needs. Think about ways to help the person hear at social events (e.g. book a quiet restaurant, let them pick the seat in a room).
- Turn your camera on when you are speaking in a virtual meeting.
- Learn a little bit of sign language. I have the Auslan Sign Bank app on my phone to assist me when I’m communicating in Auslan (as I am just a beginner too).