“Excuse me?”

I am at an office party. Much laughter and good will. I have just invested attention and time listening to an elaborate joke delivered to the group by one of our fellow workers. But, I don’t hear the climacteric punch line. So, as the uproarious laughter subsides, I ask, Excuse me, what was that? The group’s response is, Never mind, it’s not important. I take them at their word. I never mind, nor am I ever curious about something that is reported to me as unimportant.

Members of the group know that I wear a hearing aid, but they are rarely conscious of my hearing difficulties as we harmoniously work together. Yet, if someone with good hearing in that same group had missed the punch line and asked for it, he would have gotten the answer simply because he hears well.

So, here we have a case of class distinction determined by the walls of eardrums and cochlear labyrinths. Most people with good hearing are deaf to the problems of those of us that are hearing-impaired. Deafness is definitely not a popular handicap. On the other hand, if someone is blind, people around her trip all over each other, assuming the role of ancient shepherds; that is, provided that she condescends to being helped. If he is in a wheelchair, strangers will risk their limbs to propel him across a busy street, even if he doesn’t necessarily need their well-meaning assistance.

Now, it gets tricky: If someone is unable to speak, people will summon their communication skills to the level of radio astronomers in order to understand the voiceless person’s body language and they will twist and contort every muscle of their faces and bodies to help her understand them, although she can hear them perfectly well.  But, if someone is unable to hear speech fluently, he is not very subtly excluded from conversation, in effect becoming both deaf and dumb.

Am I exaggerating? Well…

At a celebration in honor of my sister’s outstanding achievements with an organization for which she worked, I occasionally helped her get around the crowded room in her wheelchair. Ordinarily, she whirled around in her chair like a NASCAR ace—in that same room, at home, and outdoors. For this event, we agreed to have me maneuver her chair so that her reckless driving would not result in doing some innocent victim bodily harm.

One of the guests who did not know who we were, approached us, fell to her knees and, as a misguided attendant for the severely demented might do, shouted into my sister’s ear, “CAN-I-GET-YOU-SOMETHING?” My sister warmly smiled and said, “No thank you.” Then, the lady rose from her gratuitous genuflected stance  and turned to me. She said something that I couldn’t hear above the clatter and chatter coming from the buffet table. I asked her, “Excuse me?” She smiled and simply moved away. Repeating her remark was too much for her. Apparently, repeating anything is too much for just about everybody.

Later, as my sister rolled her hot wheels at the speed to which she was accustomed through hallways, elevators, and heavy New York City street traffic, we recalled the incident and good-naturedly laughed about the attitudes most people have about handicaps. Over the years, we shared quite a list of handicap stories.

We also found lots of ways to overcome the problems associated with impaired mobility and fuzzy hearing. Following, are some tips about the latter. You may find them useful when speaking to those of us in the muffled world.

  • We hear vowels well, but have great difficulty hearing consonants.

We do not hear the differences between the words, bat, cat, chat, fat, gnat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, tat, and vat; or, bet, debt, fret, get, jet, let, met, net, pet, set, vet, and wet. I don’t include /yet/ because /y/ is phonetically regarded as the sixth vowel. Like the other five vowels, it flows unobstructed from the lungs, through the vocal cords, and without stops on the way, directly into the air.

But vowels alone are not enough. Something else is needed: context.

  • Context is key to identifying the intended spoken word.

In each of the strings of words above, we basically hear only their one vowel, pronounced exactly the same for each word. Of course the same is true of all monosyllabic words whose vowel components sound exactly alike.

The same is true of duo syllabic and multi-syllabic words that sound alike. Isolated, they too are not understood. Without context, batter, chatter, matter, patter, and tatter are indistinguishable to us. Without the ability to hear the differences among consonants, and hearing only identical vowels in parallel syllables within each of those words, the hearing-impaired have nothing but context to help them grasp a missed word.

Context is our major guide toward hearing words, especially when they belong to a family. The major difference between people who hear well and the hearing-impaired is that whereas the former usually hear the differences among consonants, the latter do not.

Quickly selecting the correct word from its family requires lots of practice. Almost constantly, we need to juggle a triple play. For example, if someone is speaking of an incident, and uses a word that has phonetic “relatives,” we need to simultaneously, a) keenly follow the context, b) instantly sort out which of the relatives is the correct one, and c) manage the static of constantly fluctuating thoughts, most of which are not necessarily related to the conversation but may be triggered by just about anything, in our minds and around us. We may even have to consider whether or not we should interrupt the speaker to ask about a word that continues to elude us.

Bear in mind the string of those dozen words listed above. Now, imagine that the context of what is being said to you is a woodsy adventure. Suddenly, you hear a word that sounds like eleven others. So, you immediately (yet, tentatively!) focus on only woodsy and animal words that are associated with that family of words.

In a woodsy context, the possibilities are instantly reduced to four: /bat/  /cat/  /gnat/ or /rat/. You then need to silently and rapidly review words that precede or follow the word in question. Its adjacent words might serve as clues for the specific animal mentioned; gnats and bats fly, cats and rats crawl. If you’re still unsure, one more clue should do it. Your visual radar is always on. Sight clues include facial expressions and other body language, such as the gestures of the speaker. Combined, they often speak louder than words.

When I’m unsure of what was said, I wait for a clue that may occur in the next sentence or paragraph. I also silently ‘playback’ what has already been said. This silent ‘fast forward and backwards’ technique enables me to search for basic clues that might snap into place that word the speaker intended for me to hear. It’s something like playing Scrabble in several dimensions! But practice and the virtual speed of light in your dendrites are on your side.

  • English is mainly a spectacular blend of Anglo-Saxon and Latin. When I speak to someone who is hearing-impaired and he asks me to repeat a word, I try to substitute the missed word with a word whose derivation is clearer with a Latin derivative rather than the Anglo-Saxon word he might have missed.

For example, the word /visible/ is easier to ‘hear’ than is /see/. /See/ has a large family; /visible/ is a loner. When someone has difficulty hearing /see/, I switch to /visible/. For the hearing-impaired, the more vowels, the better, even when the words are in different classes, as are /see/ and /visible/.  Latin is loaded with vowels. Problem solved.

If /car/ is not understood, try /automobile/. /Car/ has eleven brothers and sisters; /automobile/, wholly derived from Latin, is unique. Paradoxically, the more syllables and vowels in a word, the more likely will it be understood. Monosyllabic words are generally the most difficult to hear.

The substitution of several words for a single word that someone finds difficult to hear, is also very useful. Obviously, synonyms do that best. But, sometimes there is no synonym for a word, or you don’t readily remember one. In that case, repeating a word louder is not likely to help. Instead, try substituting /falling drops of water/ for /rain/; for /car/ or /automobile/, perhaps /driving/ will do the trick.

There are lots of other tricks, many of them discovered by the individual using them. For example, when speaking English to Italians or Hispanics, I’ll ask them for a substitute word in their language. Its vowels instantly provide me with the correct English word I missed when it had been spoken by them in English, perhaps with an Italian or Spanish accent.

  • Fortunately, English numbers sound very different than each of their brothers and sisters. The only exceptions are:

/fifty/ and /sixty/

/fifth/ and /sixth/

/million/ and /billion/

Face to face, the words of each set possibly may be differentiated by reading lips or because of a definitive context. However, without a direct view of a speaker’s lips, a hearing-impaired listener cannot hear the difference between the words in any of those three sets of words above. That is because their vowels sound exactly alike and their indistinguishable consonants are in identical syllabic patterns.

During a phone conversation, the hearing-impaired (hearing-aids notwithstanding), don’t have a clue as to which fraternal twin has been spoken, absent a definitive context.  In those instances, it is better to say,

/five zero/ and /six zero/ instead of /fifty/ and /sixty/

/fifth, like five/ and /sixth, like six/ instead of /fifth/ and /sixth/

(Or, if that fails: /the number after fourth/)

The same is true of /million/ and /billion/

Simply say,

/million/, with an /m/ or /billion/, with a /b/

If you hear well, remember that for a hearing-impaired person, clear diction from the speaker, not increased volume, is key to being heard by the hearing-impaired. For us, clear diction is worth a thousand lips!

Circumvention of communication difficulties is both technical and creative. The more it is practiced, the easier it becomes. And, as you know, there is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening, enormously compensates for our hearing loss. When someone speaks to me, I’m all ears!

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