Written by Bowen Tang
Imagine, just imagine when you are no longer able to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Having any of these senses impeded is enough to shake anyone’s confidence in navigating the world around them. For people with disabilities, this is an every-day reality which has recently become a nightmare with the arrival of COVID-19. The barriers and challenges presented by the pandemic have eroded the skills people with disabilities worked so hard to develop. In addition to being a global health crisis, COVID-19 is like the ultimate game of trust where we do not know if there is someone to catch our fall.
As a person with profound hearing loss living in Canada, I have the privilege of being able to access quality hearing care and services where I learned to listen and speak. Complemented using hearing assistive technology, I am able to effectively communicate in my daily interactions. There are still situations where Iistening is difficult (e.g., background noise) so I rely on visual cues such as reading the speaker’s mouth and facial expressions. With the prevalent use of face masks, I find myself struggling to access information when visiting public places like grocery stores, medical clinics, and restaurants. While face masks keep the virus particles out, they also keep the sound in, thus distorting the speaker’s speech clarity. Not only am I now faced with reduced sound quality, I can no longer use visual cues as they are completely blocked off by the face mask. This created several instances of miscommunication leading to the feeling of frustration and helplessness seeing the tower of confidence I built throughout my life collapse in rubble.
I pride myself in being a resourceful person to solve various problems encountered in life, using the skills I learned from past experiences. Since the start of COVID-19, these skills were thrown out the window when the cashier at the grocery store stared at me during checkout. I did not understand what she was asking, so I tried to anticipate what the question could be and gave random responses: “I am paying by credit card” or “I don’t need bags”. It turns out she asked if I wanted to redeem my points for the eggs I purchased. Initially I did ask her to repeat, but even then, I still could not understand, hence I started panicking and went for the alternative which ended up in me making a fool of myself. Upon reflecting on this experience, I realized that my impulsiveness stems from not wanting to hold up the line as there were other people waiting and I also made assumptions about people’s level of patience. Even in the “good old days,” there had been negative encounters where people dismissed me for clarifying information. I then generalized those experiences to the situations I face today, believing that it is a futile attempt in establishing clear communication, particularly during the time when everyone is in a high state of anxiety. Rather than utilizing the strategies that have proven effective before, I became frozen like a deer in the headlights, standing there at the checkout aisle, wishing this nightmare would be over.
As advocate for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, I always strive to educate others about the impacts of hearing loss and promote the value of accessible communication. I am ashamed to admit that I am a hypocrite when I did not once think of self-disclosing my hearing loss in the situation I mentioned and in other challenging ones. It is as though the phrase “I have a hearing loss” stopped short at the edge of my mouth. I particularly remember a time when a receptionist at the medical clinic asked the screening questions. Her voice was barely audible that I did not pick up a single word. Instead of stating that I could not hear her, I bluffed my way through the questions answering no to all of them. (A disclaimer: I knew what the questions were because this was my second visit to the clinic). Nonetheless, I unnecessarily put myself in a risky place where I could potentially be giving misinformation. As I ponder why I chose to be reckless, it all comes down to my desire to maintain as much independence as I possibly can. This mentality is clearly not sustainable. So, in order to rebuild my tower of confidence, I need to shift my mindset: one that involves me learning to trust myself and more importantly, trust others.
We live in such a fast-paced world that we never stop to think about the impacts of each choice we make. COVID-19 is the speeding ticket we needed to slow down and look at how we can navigate the journey to the future in a safer manner. For myself, it is about listening to that inner voice telling me to make each challenging encounter an opportunity to shine the spotlight on people with hearing loss and model to others how they can make the experience accessible and inclusive (e.g., use of clear face masks or shields, text communication). For others, it is about giving them a chance to learn from us, to enhance their life experiences through meeting us. By making them aware of our hearing loss, we open the possibility of gaining new allies. Even though people’s reactions will vary, we must not let past experiences define future interactions. Let us take a leap of faith in the hopes of transforming the negativity into feeling empowered. It does not take long to reap the benefits, which I yielded in my recent visit to a pharmacy. Once I indicated that I have a hearing loss, the pharmacist was kind enough to write down what she needed from me. The interaction went smoothly and I thanked her for her help. It is that simple.
In closing, I would like to take a page from one of my favorite childhood stories, The Tortoise and the Hare. The tortoise was underestimated for its ability to finish the race and was quickly left behind by the hare. The hare unexpectedly became the loser because of its ego and overconfidence. The common lesson we learned from the story is that slow and steady wins the race. In the context of the real world, COVID-19 is the race we are in, the tortoise represents people with disabilities who are left behind and the hare represents everyone else. If we do not know how to trust one another, we are all losers. If I may propose an alternative ending to the story, the hare would pick up the tortoise, the tortoise would then guide the rabbit through the path and both of them make it to the finish line together. Let us be the tortoise and the hare, let us all be the winners in life!
Author’s Note: I would like to thank God for the inspiration and courage to share my story. In doing so, I continue to grow stronger in the face of adversity. Thank you to my friends, particularly Keegan and Nicole, for their time in editing the piece.