In the supermarket I suddenly had no idea what the cashier was saying. I have been hard of hearing since an early age and got through life by lip-reading. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the UK it didn’t cross my mind that it would affect deaf people so significantly, yet there I was, unable to communicate because a cashier wore a face mask. Like many others, I straddle the hearing and the deaf worlds and this has impacted the shaping of my deaf identity.
I have enough hearing left to get by, but I can struggle and find myself in need of extra support. In that supermarket, with lip-reading out of the question, I felt incredibly isolated. The pandemic turned shopping trips into traumatic events; my anxiety was so strong, I even suffered if I had to ‘meet’ people remotely, over a Zoom meeting for work.
All my life, I had problems with my ears; then, at the age of 10 a trip to the local swimming baths led to water getting behind my eardrums. The pressure built up and by the end of the day, I was left with no eardrum in my left ear, and a large perforation in my right eardrum. As I sat in A&E with my Mum, the Doctors and nurses were astounded that I could still hear at all. They even did the age old ‘speaking behind a piece of paper’ trick to make sure that I wasn’t just lip reading.
I had the first eardrum graft at the age of 11 and the second one a year later. Nobody could be 100% sure that it would improve my hearing or stop any further hearing loss. There was always the risk that the graft would be rejected, or that it would make my hearing worse. Knowing that I could go through hours of surgery and come out the other side worse off was terrifying. The only time in my life that I can remember my Mum being scared was as they wheeled me into theatre. But it was worth the chance if it meant that my hearing could be saved.
It was a given that my hearing would deteriorate as I got older, but it wasn’t until age 24 that I was told I would need a hearing aid for my left ear. I had started to struggle with face-to-face conversations, and if a television programme didn’t have subtitles, then there was little chance I would be able to watch it. I always declared my hearing impairment on medical and employment forms, but even after I got my hearing aid, I didn’t like wearing it. It felt like I was ‘outing’ myself as a hearing-impaired person. It made it obvious that I was different in some way and people would treat me differently. As soon as the hearing aid went in, other people perceived me as being less able in most aspects of life and it was frustrating to know that any achievements were seen as a surprise.
Awareness is key
Having grown up with no deaf family or friends, I felt as though I had no-one that truly understood how I was feeling. To make matters worse, the hearing in my right ear had also taken a downwards turn. Despite this, I still felt like I wasn’t ‘deaf enough’ to claim to be a part of the deaf community. I’d grown up in a hearing family, gone to a mainstream school, had been able to achieve the same as my peers, and had always been in work.
To a lot of my peers and co-workers I appear as though my hearing is perfectly fine. Most people don’t see the concentration that goes into following a conversation or understand the difficulties of tinnitus or dizzy spells. Hearing the term ‘listening fatigue’ at the age of 28, was a lightbulb moment. I may have taken me my whole life, but I had a name for how I felt at the end of each day and I realised I wasn’t alone in feeling it.
The fact that someone who has been hard of hearing their entire life has so little knowledge of their condition and community shows how little deaf awareness there is.
Embracing the difficulties
Like most people across the world, the past year or so has been one of self-reflection. Knowing that my hearing was deteriorating faster made me look at the deaf community and how I could be a part of it. When I was selected to represent Rotherham in the Ms Galaxy UK 2021 pageant final, I knew that my platform had to be deaf awareness so that I could inform and educate people on hearing loss and how they can help make the world more accessible for deaf people, and to encourage other deaf/hard of hearing people to follow their aspirations.
The Galaxy pageants are some of the biggest in the UK and lead to International finals if you win the UK crown. The pageant community is huge, and I wanted to show as many as people as possible that being deaf is part of who I am and part of what makes me beautiful.
I have finally decided to explore learning sign language and have started to push for better deaf awareness training at my workplace. Working for South Yorkshire Police means that I have access to the Police Link Officers for the Deaf (PLOD) programme, and I’m determined to get more staff and officers signed up. Being more aware, and more honest with myself about my hearing has helped me immensely. I now wear a badge that says ‘I LIPREAD’ so that people know that they may need to lower their masks. I didn’t think it would help as much as it has, but it’s had a huge impact on my anxiety levels.
A small degree of hearing loss can be life altering so I should never have worried that I was not ‘deaf enough’ to be a part of the community. Although I have a foot in both worlds, I have now embraced my deaf identity and wear my hearing aid with pride!
Ashleigh Russell is a deaf writer and content contributor. Alongside her writing and other passions, she is involved in the pageant world: competing in Ms Galaxy UK 2021, representing her town of Rotherham.
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