Getting on the plane to come back home after the HLAA Convention was hard. Not because I couldn't understand the airline employee. Not because I was worried about traveling alone or trying to avoid the reality of going back to a routine come Monday. Not even because I loved DC so much that my inner history nerd could probably pack up and move there if given the chance.
No, coming home was hard because it meant leaving behind 1,200 people who get hearing loss. No, I didn't get to know each and every one of them. But for a few brief days, I didn't have to explain myself to anyone. When I asked someone to repeat themselves, no one rolled their eyes or sighed or looked startled - repeating is a natural part of the conversation among the deaf and hard of hearing. Communicating was comfortable and I never felt excluded from the conversation.
Don't get me wrong. Many of my friends and all of my family can hear. I love them dearly and I know the feeling is mutual. I appreciate it when they are sensitive to my hearing loss and work to include me in their activities. They are thoughtful and understand that sometimes I need a sensory break. They know to sit where I can see them and to speak clearly but not over-enunciate. I treasure these labors of love, though I know many of my friends and family would take issue with me calling it a "labor." "It's really not," they'll insist, and for that, I am grateful.
But as well-meaning and kind as my hearing friends and family are, there is just something that clicks more when I am with other deaf and hard of hearing people. It was a welcome break to be with other people who knew exactly what I meant and how I felt when I relayed the story of that one time my audiologist turned his back to me while he talked. We laughed together at the irony that even among other deaf and hard of hearing people, we still had to ask what was going on and who said what. We discussed hearing aid brands the way other people might discuss their favorite cars. We have our own vocabulary - audiogram, cochlear implants, CapTel and looping are probably not part of a typical lexicon.
Sometimes, when I am in a group of hearing people, who are all talking and my eyes are darting around the room, trying to figure out who is talking and what they are talking about and then trying to track that conversation as it flies from mouth to mouth... sometimes, I feel incapable. Like I am not smart. Like I don't have anything to contribute. I understand that may be my own faulty perception. Yes, there are strategies I can employ to maximize my group experience. No, I don't use them as often as I should. Yes, this is an exhausting lifestyle sometimes!
I came home to a Facebook message from one of my new friends that I had met at the convention."I eavesdropped a little on a conversation you were having," he explained. "I liked what you had to say." And I realized why leaving DC was so hard. Because I felt smart and capable, like I had something to say and to contribute. For lack of a better term, I felt more like a person.
Being hard of hearing in a hearing world is not the worst thing to happen to me. Not by a long shot. But I do often struggle with feeling like I live on the outside of things, always on the edge of everyone else's experiences. Helen Keller said, "Blindness separates us from things but deafness separates us from people." That separation is hard to bear sometimes, and that's why being around other deaf and hard of hearing people is a relief: I don't have to work so hard to understand and be understood. We know how to communicate so that everyone is included.
I'm glad I have a growing community of deaf and hard of hearing friends here at home, but I'm excited to make new friends across the country, too!
Next year in Rhode Island - who's with me?!