I call my mother to ask again why she didn’t sign me up to learn sign language when I was born and the doctor said I had a fifty percent hearing loss in my right ear, or when I was seven and the doctor said, Did we say just the right ear? We meant both. Yes, that’s right. Fifty percent loss in both ears. My mom plays defense and repeats for something like the fifth, tenth, or hundredth time, Your father and I didn’t think it was necessary.
A speech therapist teaches me how to listen through writing. She says, I went to the grocery store this morning, and I copy down what I hear. Together, we fill in the gaps. This is how I have come to conceptualize listening: the labor of filling in the gaps between what is said and what is heard. This is how I process language, but after years of practice, I do it automatically, so that I’m no longer sure what I’m actually hearing and what my brain has translated for me. Sometimes I wish I could render this labor visible, if only to better understand why people exhaust me.
In middle school, my Individualized Education Program requires that I give a presentation on my hearing loss every year. Dreadfully shy, I pull out my hearing aids and hold them up for everyone to gawk at. This is why the teacher uses closed captioning and why she stopped running fans in the room. Sorry, I say and sputter out facts about the anatomy of ears and tiny hairs that pick up sound. The difference in damage of the eardrums and these hair cells. Or something. My classmates line up for a turn at wearing the aids. One boy looks at me with some kind of reverence. Whoa, he says, this is what you hear all the time? Everything is so loud.
As I move through school, I am hyper-aware of how often disability is read as inferiority or stupidity. My freshman English teacher says, If you’d told me that I had a hearing impaired student in my classroom and didn’t tell me it was Abby, I never would have guessed. She does so well, and pride swarms me. I realize I can pass. Self-erasure becomes something of a habit.
When I stop wearing my aids, I say it’s because they give me migraines and this is true to an extent, but there’s also the fact that they are the only visible marker of my difference. When I’m 21, I discover that health insurance only covers the cost of aids for children. The doctor brings out a catalog of all the aids they sell. The kind I need cost upwards of nine hundred dollars each.
My loss affects certain frequencies—mostly those in the upper register. Some frequencies are muffled, some I can’t hear at all. This means first that I have a misplaced disdain for people with high-pitched voices who speak quietly, and second that certain sounds are simply beyond me. We don’t often think of language as moving across space in waves, but letters, like colors, have frequencies. S, t, ch all run on the high side.
After a long day, participating in a conversation is next to impossible. Piecing together even a single sentence can feel like slogging through a blizzard in gale-force winds. By the time I comprehend what one person has said, the conversation has blown well past me. The internet calls this “listening fatigue.”
People have varying degrees of patience. Sometimes it’s a social experiment. I track how long it takes for each person to give up. Is it one, what? Two, could you repeat that? Three, I’m sorry I can’t hear you. Annoyance embedded in over-enunciation. I nod along when people snap at me. I sympathize with their frustration.
I train myself to disclose my disability in apologies and jokes.
There are two possibilities. Option A) my hearing remains constant until I reach that nursing home touchdown and loss becomes the norm. Or B) my hearing deteriorates until I reach total isolation by thirty, thirty-five.
My mother reads an article on Facebook. She calls to tell me that I need to stop saying that I am disabled, that I should say instead that I have a disability. See, it’s all about attitude, she says. If you act like a victim, that’s all you’ll ever be.
I go to a bar with friends and sit and drink and zone out and wonder at how smart my people are because I keep picking up the word Foucault and of course they’re talking about philosophy. The nerds. “Don’t Stop Believin’” plays three times in a row. I hum along and wait for that socially acceptable moment to plead exhaustion. One woman follows me to the bathroom where the world quiets in time for me to hear her say, I just wish you’d try harder.
Abby Burns is a MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame. Her work has appeared in Entropy, (b)OINK zine, Longridge Review, Word Riot, and elsewhere.