Reflections On Being Deaf, Gray and Italian on the “eve” of my 70th birthday

Do you ever look at someone and try to imagine who they were as a child or as a young adult?

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Each of us has a story, with many chapters.  In a few weeks I will celebrate my 70th birthday.  For many of us, there are many versions of our “self” that include a younger version and the one that will always be in our minds.   But time does pass, and the older I get the more I realize how important time is.  Use it wisely.  It is the ultimate gift each of us is given.

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    New Rochelle High School Yearbook 1965

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    I think I was 18 in this picture.

On being deaf- If someone had told me in my youth that I would someday be totally deaf, I don’t know how well I would have handled it.  Over the years, I have struggled with this slow progression towards silence and the mindsets society has placed upon those of us who have trouble communicating with the mainstream.  Like most people with hearing loss, I have navigated my journey through rude store clerks, discrimination in the workplace and even jerky people who we thought were sensitive and above treating us like secondhand citizens.

But there is an upside to this experience for sure.  Strangely, I have experienced my greatest growth because of this experience.  Losing my hearing has made me more sensitive to the plight of those on the outskirts of society, it has humbled me and made me really think about what someone else’s journey may be like.  It has also made me determined to complete whatever goals I choose despite being deaf.

In the silence, I heard my own voice and I began to write and publish work.  In my upcoming book, Living In The Color Magenta, I compare going deaf to  smothering and drowning.  That is what it always felt like to me. Going down, no one hearing you and having no voice.  I have said it before, and I will say it again.  If it weren’t for the Hearing Loss Association of America www.hearingloss.org over the last more than 25 years, I don’t know how well I would have fared.  This organization gives people like me a place to go to advocate and share with others in our journey.  Hearing loss is isolating, and like many others I have tremendous respect and gratitude for their work.  This organization and the love of my family gave me courage when I really needed it. We need to always pay it forward.

I am very lucky to be living in an era where there is something called a cochlear implant.  Helen Keller, Thomas Edision, Beethoven and so many others were not.  Almost every week someone approaches me and asks me about this miraculous operation.  I can wake up deaf, and put on my implants and be part of the hearing world.  For this, I will always be grateful.

1012 About gray (grey) hair-I remember finding my first gray hairs when I was 26 years old and pregnant with my first child.  I was mortified.  How could I already have grays?  My hair was very dark brown, and I was still wearing a “Cher” hairdo with bangs and long dark tresses.  The steely grays really stood out.  Over the next 40 years, I went from dark brown to light brown, auburn, blonde and platinum.  One day after being sick and not being able to make it to the colorist, I examined my shimmery grays showing through at the part and I just said, “I’m not doing this anymore.”  I kind of liked that my natural pearly shade matches best with my dark Italian coloring, and it was very liberating to accept my new look and older self.  

To each his own.  I see many women ditching the bottle and feeling confident enough to be  comfortable with their changing looks.  Even my colorist told me in recent years, “You actually look younger with your own natural hair color, even though I lost a customer.”  I appreciated that.

But growing older is about so much more than gray hair.  Time is passing and we are becoming older and more vulnerable.  There’s a greater chance for serious illness or a fall.  That sometimes  scares me.  We lose lots of people we care for and love. These losses are profound.

I have always tried to be there for my children.  I think every parent always feels they want to help their children if there is a crisis for as long as they live.  But somewhere along the way, the tables turn and our kids become our strength.  It’s beautiful to have wonderful children,  but kind of shocking to witness this shift.

On being Italian- I will always be grateful for my strong Italian roots.  Being the daughter of an immigrant parent allowed me to understand the plight of so many generations who have come to the U.S.  My parents gave us a strong Christian faith, my Italian-born father’s love of opera and his garden were inspiring.  My mother’s binding efforts to give us a traditional, strong family life complete with ethnic foods and rituals.  Christmas, Easter Sunday, faith hope and patriotism… all of these were true gifts.

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Mom with all seven of her children
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Mom making her famous lasagne
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With my parents, five of my six sisters and brothers
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Easter Sunday
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With 3 of my 4 sisters a few years ago celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

A few more observations-

Sometimes I can still hear my mother’s voice– At this stage of my life, I look so much like my mother, I almost expect her to answer back when I look in the mirror.  My mother made it through some pretty tough stuff.  As a child, I always felt she was so strong it was almost intimidating.  But somehow, that shy little girl I used to be inherited some of her resilience.  I am grateful for that gift.  I recently was hospitalized after a fall and in serious condition.  As I looked up and saw IV attached to one arm, a nurse taking blood from the other, while one nurse waited to take my temperature and blood pressure, I heard words like sepsis, 104 fever, put her in cardiac care, etc.  Was my life in danger?  How would my mother handle this?  Suddenly, I could hear her firm voice speaking to the grim reaper saying, “I’m not going anywhere!”  So I repeated that phrase in my mind and it gave me courage. I’ve had these moments before, andI suspect I will have them again.

On fathers and daughters- Fathers definitely have a lot to do with how a woman will see herself as worthy and lovable.  I was lucky to have a father that instilled that in me and a good husband who gave that gift to his daughters.

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On being in love- I’m glad that I have loved and been loved.  Even though it hurts like hell when you lose someone, it is an experience to not be missed.  It is one of the greatest gifts in life. No one can ever take that away from you.

Family- It’s all that matters.  Period.  So glad my daughters are not just sisters, but they have always been best friends.

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Birthday parties

 

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Vacationing in Sag Harbor 2015

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On being a grandma- There is nothing like it!  Love this little boy.  I want to watch my grandson grow taller than me, watch him fall in love for the first time, hear his stories and keep that special connection we have forever.

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On dogs- they really are nicer than people 🙂

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Time-  It all comes down to time well spent.  How have you spent your time today?  My kids told me they are holding me to living to 100 years old, and that’s 30 more years of good living for this deaf, gray and Italian lady.  I’m sure there will be many more life lessons.  I’m ready.

 

Happy Birthday to me!   Cheers!

 

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The Truth About Hearing Loss And The Workplace

Well, it’s complicated.  In the last decade I was fortunate enough to work in an environment that was welcoming and inclusive.  I taught college-level English classes and was lucky enough to be surrounded by understanding people.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  Ask anyone with a hearing loss and they will tell you there are struggles. As our hearing loss accelerates more and more, frustrations on both sides tends to heighten unless there is an understanding of how we sometimes function differently than the masses.

There are struggles to assert we are capable and worthy of employment.  Struggles to assert we are committed to excellence.  Struggles that dictate we have to jump through hoops and go the extra mile to prove we are equal.  Struggles to understand why some people don’t understand diversity and find differences annoying or even subject matter for jokes.

Some of those struggles are because of mindsets created long ago about persons with hearing loss.  Some of those struggles are because those who have varying levels of deafness do not advocate enough for themselves.  Sometimes the offenders are those who are educated, in an authoritative role or even in do-good roles that require an understanding and compassion for the human condition.  Textbooks can teach theory, but practice is the true litmus test.

We as persons with hearing loss must teach our employers what our special needs are.  Often, we do not.  This is because we are often afraid if we ask for special accommodations, even as simple as written instructions or facing us when someone speaks, we will be perceived as a even more deaf and struggling to do our job.  The biggest mistake we make,and we all do it, is bluff.  We pretend we heard a directive when we may have heard only part of it or none of it.  We are often too humiliated to ask again and again what was said.

Now here’s the thing…even though The Americans with Disabilities was signed in 1990, there are still things that happen in the workplace that violate the rights of those with hearing loss.  Like any other “ism,” there will always be people in our society that use their power in unfair and negative ways.  When a person with hearing loss complains of mistreatment, what happens?

In her essay entitled “The Ways We Lie,” Stephanie Ericsson explains there are many ways we lie from little white lies to lies that are damaging and destructive.  Here are some of the ways this essay can be applied to the deceit that sometimes takes place in the workplace regarding those with hearing loss.

“IGNORING THE PLAIN FACTS

“In the ’60s, the Catholic Church in Massachusetts began hearing complaints that Father James Porter was sexually molesting children.  Rather than relieving him of his duties, the ecclesiastical authorities simply moved him from one parish to another between 1960 and 1967, actually providing him with a fresh supply of unsuspecting families and innocent children to abuse….” (Ericsson)

How does this apply to the workplace?  There are complaints filed in companies that have “open door” policies any day of the year.  How often does the company admit to wrongdoing?  Whether it’s disability, racism, sexism, homophobia or any other prejudice, companies are just not going to risk admitting to wrongdoing and have a suit on their hands.

“DEFLECTING

When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff. –Cicero.

Some of the most skilled deflectors are passive-aggressive people who, when accused of inappropriate behavior, refuse to respond to the accusations.  This you-don’t-exist stance infuriates the accuser, who understandably, screams something obscene out of frustration.  The trap is sprung and the act of deflection successful, because now the passive-agressive person can indignantly say, “who can talk to someone as unreasonable as you?”  The real issue is forgotten and the sins of the original victim become the focus.  Feeling guilty of name-calling, the victim is fully tamed and crawls into a hole, ashamed. I have watched this fighting technique work thousands of times in disputes between men and women, and what I’ve learned is that the real culprit is not necessarily the one who swears the loudest.” (Ericsson)

I know a few people who have actually been so exasperated they threw the F-bomb at the offending employer after being continually verbally abused.  Who could blame them?

“STEREOTYPES AND CLICHES

Where opinion does not exist, the status quo becomes stereotyped and  all originality is discouraged. –Bertrand Russell

…They take a single tree and make it a landscape.  They destroy curiosity.  They close minds and separate people.  …Fat people, ugly people, beautiful people, old people, large-breasted women, short men, the mentally ill, and the homeless all could tell you how much more they are like us than we want to think…” (Ericsson)

I remember once many years ago and before I was profoundly deaf, someone asked for directions to my office. He was told to go upstairs, get off the elevator on the second floor and speak to the woman with the hearing aid.  That was a revelation for me because it never occurred to me that someone would define me by my hearing loss.  But what does someone see when they see us? Do they draw a picture in their mind of who we are before they know us?

“DISMISSAL

Dismissal is perhaps the slipperiest of all lies.  Dismissing feelings, perceptions, or even the raw facts of a situation ranks as a kind of lie that can do as much damage to a person as any other kind of lie.” (Ericsson)

When an employer is dismissive of a complaint someone makes in the workplace they are being deemed irrelevant, invisible and it only affirms to the offended party that they are marginalized in our society without a right to a voice.

So what’s the answer here?  Do we speak up or keep our mouth shut if we are not being treated fairly or if we are experiencing abuse?  There is no easy answer.  But here are some of my personal thoughts.  

Once, many years ago when I first started losing my hearing, I was walking into the cafeteria for a coffee break and I overheard a co-worker say to a group of women including my boss, “How does she know when her phone rings if she can’t hear?” She thought it was hilarious, but it was my first real experience seeing how mean-spirited some people can be.

Years later, I was involved in event planning.  I noticed my boss didn’t fill me in on the planning of some upcoming events, and I asked her why.  Her response was, “Because you can’t hear and I would have to shout, and then I would get laryngitis.”  I had worked there for five years, long hours skipping lunch and gone for two years without a sick day, –worked events at the Waldorf-Astoria and The Plaza hotel for as many as 1,200 people including well-known celebrities, and I did it well.  I was so hurt by her bluntness that day I walked out feeling so humiliated I didn’t know if I ever wanted to come back.  What hurt most was this was an acknowledgement of my progressive hearing loss and how it was affecting me in the workplace.  Two days later I came in and had a long talk with her.  She not only apologized, but she made an effort to try to understand the dynamics of hearing loss.  That was 30 years ago, and we stayed friends until she died recently.

I haven’t always been an advocate for myself.  Honestly, it’s sometimes a no-win situation as many will tell you.  It’s very difficult to be an advocate and not get emotional about the struggles we face every day.  Organizations such as Hearing Loss Association of America helps  members  deal with hearing loss in the workplace through their meetings, convention seminars and written materials. (www.hearingloss.org)

Also, books such as Living Better with Hearing Loss, A Guide To Health, Happiness, Love, Sex, Work, Friends…and Hearing Aids by Katherine Bouton are helpful. Katherine Bouton also has a blog hearingbetterwithhearingloss.wordpress.com.

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