Many people were waiting at the admittance desk of the psychiatric institutional outpatients’ department. From behind, I heard a very loud female voice say: “CAN I REACH YOU VIA WHATSAPP, OR DO YOU PREFER A SIMPLE TEXT MESSAGE?” I felt this was not directed at me and thought: “Why does she have to talk so loud?!” Because if I, with my poor hearing, think somebody speaks loud, it has to be so.
Later, we all were sitting in the waiting room. Next to the lady with the loud voice sat a young woman, maybe in her mid-twenties. I noticed that said lady did not only speak to the young woman, she also was using sign language. A closer look revealed that the young woman did not wear any hearing aids or cochlea implants. So I came to the conclusion she must be completely deaf. But she did not answer the lady in sign language, she spoke to her. She had a pleasant voice, not to loud. Sometimes a few words came out slurred, but I could understand her very well. Because she didn’t use sign language, and because of her good pronounciation, I came to the conclusion that she must have learned to speak when she was a child and lost her hearing later in life. The lady kept on talking to her in her loud voice, and I rolled my eyes: When your conversation partner is deaf, the volume of your voice doesn’t matter. An exact pronounciation is important, because it makes reading lips easier.
I really was impressed how good the young woman could speak, even without hearing anything. I wanted to tell her that, but how? I don’t know sign language, and I don’t know if I speak clearly enough that someone can read my lips. For the first time, I felt the barrier a normal hearing person has to overcome when it comes to communicating with hairing impaired or deaf people. So I decided to treat her like I would like to be treated, and tipped her carefully on the shoulder. She was so focussed on the lady next to her, I had no possibility to make eye contact.
Next problem: Do I speak directly to her, or to her companion, that translates for her? Once again, I acted like I was concerned. When sombody wants to communicate with me, he/she should speak directly to me, possible problems be damned. So I tried to speak “normally”, not to quickly and not to slowly: “Hello! I just wanted to tell you that your pronounciation is very good. I am wearing a hearing aid, and I am deaf on the other ear, so I know a little bit how difficult it is.”
Her eyes lit up, and I was so glad that I had gathered all my courage. All three of us talked for a while, the loud speaking lady was a volunteer who helped deaf people with doctor’s appointments and visits to the authorities. My guess had been correct, the young lady had heard well until puberty, than abruptly became deaf (I did not ask about the circumstances).
After I spoke to my doctor, I saw the young lady sitting in the waiting room – with a very short list of therapists that work with sign language in her hand. You have to wait for months before you can start talk therapy with a normal therapist, I don’t want to know how long you have to wait to speak with a therapist who is specialised in sign language.
This meeting, and the fact that I met many hearing impaired patients during my inpatient stays on the psychiatric ward, makes me wonder if poor hearing and deafness can contribute to mental illness. Living with a disability is always tiring, and hearing impaired and deaf persons are cut off from many social gatherings. And many normal hearing people just don’t know how to communicate with hearing impaired or deaf people.
I was “on the other side” for a short time, and it really opened my eyes. If even I, who has more than fourty years experience of living with poor hearing, feels unsure when it comes to communicating with a deaf person, how difficult must it be for a person without this knowledge. But it also shows: Communication is possible, when both sides are willing to give it a try.
Waiting room musings, Part 1