Losing a voice, gaining a perspective
November 13, 2012
Filed under Features
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It isn't often that a hearing, articulate person must go for days without uttering a word, but that is what the doctor told me I had to do if I wanted my voice back by the end of the week. It's that time of year when allergies and sinus infections spread in our communities. I had so much phlegm in the back of my throat that when I tried to talk, an extremely low, unfamiliar voice--a voice of an old woman--gurgled out instead. Even when I could say a few words, some syllables would not pronounce; it was like someone kept clicking the mute button on and off in my voice box. It also hurt to talk, so I kept it to a minimum and often spoke in whispers. The doctor told me not to speak, not even to whisper, for at least a few days. Meanwhile I had classes to attend, people to reach, and errands to run. I was not going to let this temporary silence stop me from carrying on my plans for the week. After the doctor's office I went straight to Walgreens to pick up a recommended over-the-counter medication. Thankfully the doctor wrote the name of it on a piece of paper. I waved down a Walgreens employee, rubbed my throat, and mouthed, "can't talk," then I handed her the piece of paper. She was friendly, spoke to me, and helped me find it. I mouthed, "Thank you." When I approached the cashier and handed her the medication, she told me the total and I nodded, grabbing my wallet. Realizing I didn't say a word, she assumed I could not hear and turned the monitor so it faced me and I could see the amount due. I wasn't going to bother trying to explain to her that I can hear, but it was a nice gesture; I imagine a helpful one for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. At the same time, I wish she had assumed I could hear, because she turned the monitor away and gave back my change, not telling me the amount. She also barely made eye contact once she realized I couldn't speak. When a person expresses they cannot speak, what should people assume? One employee talked to me while the other became silent; both making their own assumptions about the woman who did not have a voice. It got me thinking about language barriers for those who must find other means of communication in public. Deborah S. Witty works for the Secretary of State. She said she has been deaf since she was 18 months old. "My parents don't know the cause of it," Witty said. "I just know I got sick and when they tried to call my name, Debbie, I could not hear them." Witty said she can read lips a little, but she often relies on writing notes to communicate with people in public who don't know sign language. Witty explained, however, that she is not good at writing in English and sometimes people misunderstand her. "I have patience with them, though," she said. Witty said it helps greatly working with people who know a little bit of sign language, at least the alphabet. She is also set up with an interpreter during evaluations and meetings at work. While she has had miscommunications in that past with her supervisor, with a co-worker, and people in public, she said, "I'm interested in communicating with the hearing, with notes or in sign language." Nick Pelissier, a senior in Sociology & Anthropology, is hard of hearing. He explained, "[I] lost all my hearing in the left ear, and I have about half my hearing in my right ear…I can hear a bit, but not every sound. I can only hear bits and pieces of words." Despite this, Pelissier can speak clearly and read lips thanks to speech therapy growing up. He hated speech therapy as a child due to the repetitiveness and left prematurely, but that therapy has helped him speak among the hearing. Regarding public speaking, he said: "I think the main problem that I face is that I speak so well that most people mistake me for being a hearing person. I know I speak with an accent, but sometimes I have my moments when I can speak so clearly, somebody will ask me what country I'm from…people who don't know me definitely think I'm a hearing person, and it gets kind of awkward when they find out I'm hard of hearing." Pelissier said it is also frustrating, "When people turn away when they are talking; they do it all the time and it drives me up the wall." I can relate to this statement during my brief period of silence, but my problem was in reverse. While Pelissier can't understand people who turn away from him, preventing him from reading lips, I often tried communicating with people and they would look away just as I was trying to tell them something. After one of my classes, someone complimented me and then immediately glanced away, forcing me to tap him on the shoulder to get him to look back so I could mouth, "Thank you." While Pelissier may not have as much difficulty communicating in public like Witty, he notes the differences in treatment among the hearing. He said, "There have been several times where people would find out that I'm hard of hearing and then their entire attitude would change. They'll exaggerate their lip movement, they'll exaggerate their motions, and it's irritating when they start to do that." Pelissier added that some people treat him like he is mentally handicapped, making their speech simple and giving looks of pity. It makes me think of the cashier who averted her eyes from me once she came to the conclusion that I was deaf or hard of hearing.