“What’s So Funny?”

A couple of years ago I was facilitating a meeting in a conference room in a state office building. The group had gone out for lunch, but I stayed in the room and ate my fried egg sandwich, a little the worse for four hours in a sandwich bag, but still very welcome. It had been a tense morning and I relished the quiet time alone with my munching and my thoughts.

My ear. Dare you to find the hearing aid

“Battery low” she said in my ear. If you wear hearing aids you know her voice. She alerts you when it is time to put in a new battery. My hearing loss began with tinnitus a few years ago and the annual tests show a downward trajectory. Thanks to hearing aids I can still work, with an occasional, “can you please repeat that?” So when she warned me the battery was low, I pulled out the package of tiny round batteries, dispensed one and fumbled to remove the adhesive tab on the back. It slipped out of my hand and onto the carpet, commercial grade with a short speckled nap. On hands and knees I searched for it. No luck. I flicked another one out and loaded it successfully into the hearing aid. Once I had tucked it into place in my ear, she reassured me, “left ear ready.”  I returned to my sandwich.

Back from lunch, the group filed into the room. A young man spied something on the rug, leaned down, and held

re-enactment of battery lost in carpet

up the tiny silver disc between his thumb and forefinger. “Uh-oh,” he said with a touch of glee, “This looks like a hearing aid battery! Anyone missing it?” He was met with a chorus of “Eh?” “What’d you say?” “Speak up, Sonny!” and much laughter.

There I was, sitting right next to him. No one imagined that the battery was related to me. I debated with myself. Should I fess up? I could say it jauntily: “Yep, that would be mine.” Or I could say it somberly:  “I’d appreciate having it back. Thank you,” and put out my hand. I tested scenarios, and in the end I couldn’t do it. I smiled and turned to my notes and waited for the gaiety to quiet down.

I was ashamed. I didn’t want the group to know that I wore hearing aids. And since then I have been ashamed that I didn’t own my disability and perhaps do a little educating of an ignorant group. Had I spoken up, they might have thought, “Wow, I didn’t know someone like Lucy wore hearing aids.” They might have been a little more circumspect, a little more restrained next time there was the opportunity to have a laugh about a disability.

I realize that unless I fight back, I am part of the problem, an accomplice in the exploitation of those with hearing loss. So I am here to declare my hearing loss and give all you hearing readers some insights. Even if a disability is not immediately discernible it is still a challenge, and when we are dealing with challenges, hidden or evident, we can begin to feel shame, isolation and a lack of worth.

Beethoven’s ear trumpet. I count myself lucky.

For many hearing people, it seems that hearing loss is inherently funny. The jokes abound. It is open season on the elderly who make foolish mistakes, thinking they heard “She has the fleas,” when it was actually, “Please pass the peas.” We may not hear a phone’s ring tone or a microwave beeping, and go about our business unaware that a spouse is calling to ask us to pick up a bottle of wine, or that the coffee you warmed in the morning is desperately calling to you that it is ready. In social situations at some point it becomes easier to withdraw, pretend you heard the joke that everyone is laughing at rather than ask “What did he say?” or “What’s so funny?”  From there it is a slippery slope. You accept the role of bystander, watching the chatter go by, catching some of it, wondering about the rest of it.

You can ask your spouse later, “Why was everyone laughing when the waiter brought the fish course?” I am lucky to have a husband who is sympathetic and supportive, which I know is not always easy. It can be frustrating having to explain the joke I missed or what that character in the movie was whispering about. My husband has to remember, or be reminded, to speak up even if I am just on the other side of the kitchen table, and we’ve learned that starting a conversation from another room will never work. We’ve both had to make adjustments to keep that communication flowing and not fall into frustration (for him) and depression (for me).

I was thinking today that other disabilities are not the butt of amusement. If I had broken my right arm and it was in a sling, I doubt anyone would chuckle while extending a hand to shake, or hand me a peanut butter jar and ask me to open it. Instead, I would probably get a sympathetic, maybe even empathetic, look.  I know it’s different; the sling would announce the disability, and I am walking around, disability invisible. But still I don’t think I’ve ever heard chuckling or mocking about broken arms…or legs, or brain tumors, or blindness, or cancer. And if you have, I don’t want to hear about it. I’m not looking for equal mockery; I’m looking for equal respect.

I also have to admit that maybe I am ultra sensitive because this is my disability. Those with other disabilities undoubtedly have longer lists of affronts and insensitivities than mine. So, my message is simple:  be grateful for the good health that you have and be sensitive to disabilities whether they show or not.

And one more observation: These cultural norms run deep. I was at a luncheon recently and an author said that she was going to do a reading at a nursing home. There was a murmur around the table. I could feel it coming on…someone was going to say it. Without hesitating, I took the very role that I have been criticizing, and quipped, “You better read loud!” Everyone had a good chuckle, at my invitation….and at my own expense. All I can say is that I am a work in progress.

34 thoughts on ““What’s So Funny?””

    1. Definitely, works in progress we are. Most days 😊
      Delighted to read this, Lucy. Keep writing, please. ❤️Never knew being 75 would be so good. For those of us who are so fortunate to be “of an age”, yes, let us be kind while we explore what is some new territory in this human experience—where we are lucky to live so well for so long.

  1. Hi Lucy,
    I’m surprised that your colleague didn’t want to know who the blind person was that couldn’t find the battery on the rug. All a matter of perspective. Loved reading your blog.

  2. So glad you did this, Lucy. Some years ago I was taking a community ed memoir-writing class. A 90-year-old student, in polite exasperation, once stopped the discussion to ask, “Will you please speak up and look at me. You have no idea how lonely it is not being able to hear what’s going on.” She broke my heart and woke me up. Now I am in her (and your) shoes and a couple times have been on the verge of dropping completely out. But the new aids are pretty good. So I’m hanging in for the time being. Thanks, Lucy. It’s important information.

  3. So the guy that found the battery said “Looks like a hearing aid battery”…How did he know? 🙂

    Love reading your stories!
    🙂 lp

  4. Wonderful story and thank you for sharing! So many have disabilities we cannot see, and many struggle to accept them, while others are insensitive to them. You have nothing to be ashamed of:-)

  5. As a long time hearing aide user I would like to add a bit of hard earned knowledge. The Most Important thing about hearing aides is to WEAR them. So many users carry them around in the case waiting to decide when to put them in your ears and always miss the opportunity when they are needed. So, my advice is get up in the morning, brush your teeth and put your Hearing Aides in! That way , guess what? You can hear things and you preserve your existing hearing!
    Love to all.
    Raphiel

    1. Amen! My audiologist-doctor told me the same thing years ago, and he was wearing hearing aids himself. And if you put them on before you brush your teeth, then the water running sounds like Niagara Falls, instead of a distant trickle. (Oops, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I run the water all the time while I’m brushing my teeth…just at the beginning and end!)

  6. This happens with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). People say, “Oh, I’m so OCD” when in fact they do not have the condition. This trivializes a condition that for many is debilitating. For most people with OCD, it’s not a joke.

    1. Thanks for this, Stephanie! Really good point. My husband, a Vietnam vet, has PTSD diagnosed by the VA, and I cringe when someone says, “She told me I had spinach in my teeth and my PTSD kicked in!” Gimme a break.

  7. My husband is almost deaf and we have had to relearn how to have a conversation – lots of rules! In seeing how difficult it has been for him and his courage in dealing with it, I fell in love all over again! Often I wear a small device around my neck which is tuned to his hearing aids, meaning we can talk in the car and he can hear me in public spaces, so I can tip him off as to what is being discussed. Companionship is wonderful with or without words, and there is nothing funny about hearing loss, OCD or PTSD!

    1. That is the sweetest confession! Falling in love all over again…with his courage in adversity. Many thanks for that, and for the information about the device that enables you to talk directly to his hearing aids. Excellent. You two are both heroes!

  8. Totally relate. In mediation we (I) customarily request parties to speak audibly and only one person at a time. I now add that since I have hearing aids it would be greatly appreciated. The hard part is when in a yoga class the instructor gives direction in those looww, soothing tones that I believe even those with acute hearing do not get. As often said, aging is not for the faint hearted.

    1. I can so relate to the yoga class! Sometimes I want to just shout, “Speak up, godammit!” But that would be criminal, in that sacred space of muffled sounds and gentle murmurs.

  9. Thanks for sharing this Lucy and being open about the challenges!
    Great story and I can imagine the dilemma of owning up to that. It is certainly a good reminder for all os us to be sensitive to things we cannot see with those around us as we facilitate or interact in other ways.
    hugs,
    Seth

  10. It is OK Lucy, I wear hearing aids too, but really dislike having to wear them. Not because I am ashamed, but because they are a pain in the butt to get in my ears because of my large hands and thick fingers. The same thing applies when I try to get my contacts in.
    I also find that in a crowded room with a lot of background noise, they are pretty useless. I find that just looking at the person I am talking to really helps. I am also lucky that I come from a family with loud voices.

    Jeff

    1. Thanks, Jeff! More interesting, informative details from the hearing aid crowd. You’re so right about facing the person. I am probably reading lips more than I realize.

  11. It’s an issue that so many of usunderstand. Gaylon is going fo a check up next week and I sometimes wonder how come I missed that jok.
    Thank you for your honesty and saying it so well.

  12. I got mine in late June because my older son was getting married in July, and I wanted to be able to hear the wedding, dammit! They have been very helpful, though as Jeff says they still have their limitations.

    I went ahead and got the more visible (and accessible) kind. I figured that I’ve been wearing eyeglasses since I was in third grade … at this point I’m not going to be embarrassed about hearing aids.

  13. i have been wearing aids for over 30 years, and fortunately for me, i continue to express indignation when people do not speak clearly or loudly enough. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for righteous anger. And i feel that quiet, indistinct talkers are the ones with a problem, not me. That includes meditative and contemplative facilitators as well as yoga teachers. Yes, once in a while i retreat into annoyed, frustrated and unhappy silence. If i find that that behavior on my part is recurring with increasing frequency, i head to the audiologists’ office for an aid cleaning and possible tweaking. Be sure to get your hearing tested annually, btw, and learn how to care for the aids. And people who do not wear their aids during all waking hours risk losing increasingly more brain and memory function. thanks for allowing this venting.

    1. Go, Claire, go!! You are an inspiration. Yes, maintenance and tweaking is important, and yes, I wear mine all walking hours…even if some of those hours are pretty vegetative.

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