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Opinion

Commentary: Don’t be offended when I ask you to speak up

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An image of a hearing aid. The author of this piece, who is hard of hearing, recalls upsetting a fellow shopper at the supermarket simply by asking his wife to speak up.
(Getty Images)

Recently, I recalled an incident that happened a few years ago. But I still wince as I replay it in my mind.

I was waiting in a checkout line at a local supermarket, when I struck up a conversation with the elderly couple in front of me. The woman had an exceptionally soft voice, and I asked her to repeat something a couple times.

Her husband abruptly interrupted.

“What are you, deaf?” he yelled in a loud, gruff voice.

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It wasn’t so much a question, as a statement.

“Not yet, but getting close,” I responded.

“Guess that’s not my problem,” he replied.

As I attempted to recover from his insensitive comment, the couple checked out and left. With not even a glance in my direction.

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“Did I just witness the end of compassion and civility?” I wondered.

I have been hearing impaired for about 30 years. My loss is now in the moderate-to-severe range, so I rely on hearing aids, as well as the kindness and patience of others.

Normally, this is not a problem.

Although this disability has somewhat impacted what I do most days, I have been blessed with a wonderful life, personally and professionally.

But perhaps some — like the man in the checkout line — need a little better education about hearing loss.

“When I get up in the morning, I need to prepare for the day. For you, it may only be taking a shower and brushing your teeth. But for me, it’s also planning out my day carefully to see where I need to make accommodations.”

Seeing friends? Seat them on my right (the better ear).

Going to a restaurant? Call ahead for a table in a less noisy area. Or go at an off-time.

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Taking an exercise class? Try for a spot in eyeshot of the instructor. Then you can follow her, instead of relying on verbal commands.

Going to the theater or a movie? Plan to get a hearing device before the show begins.

Attending a lecture, class or conference? Arrive early for a seat closest to the podium or speaker. If you feel brave, mention your hearing issue ahead of time, so that maybe he or she will make a bit more of an effort when speaking. Ask to have him repeat the audience’s questions.

The list goes on and on. It’s no different for the man in the wheelchair. Or the woman with vision problems. Or the student with a learning disability. I suspect that everyone deals with some kind of struggle, often invisible to the rest of us. But I’ve learned that it need not be debilitating. It’s all in the attitude.

So, what can you do to help?

Feel free to show people this article. And while you’re at it, ask for a few more accommodations:

  • Speak audibly and clearly (never from another room)
  • Have eye contact when you converse
  • Be willing to repeat when you’ve missed something. Perhaps say it in a different way.

Sometimes it helps to lighten a serious conversation with a bit of humor. A man tells his neighbor that he just bought a new hearing aid.
“It cost $4,000, but it’s state of the art.”

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“Wow!” replied the neighbor. “What kind is it?”

“12:30.”

And on that note, I wish you a life of empathy and joy.

Terri Goldstein lives in Newport Beach.


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