“You really need to learn how to lip read.”

I walked into a busy classroom and the teacher motioned for me to go over to where they were sitting. As I approached, they proceeded to whisper a remark about a child in their class. The whispering took place behind their hand. When they realised I hadn’t heard them, they removed their hand from their face and repeated the whispered remark; making over-pronounced shapes with their lips. The classroom was noisy, and I had no idea of context to help me in decoding what my colleague had said to me. They began to chuckle. I feigned an amused-sounding laugh; assuming this was an offhand statement which required no verbal response, and that a laugh in concurrence would suffice. Yet my reaction failed in convincing the teacher of my comprehension. The comment which followed was not about a child, but instead was directed at me. My colleague was obviously irritated at my inability to hear them, and the comment was made in response to this annoyance. It was conveyed with intense clarity. Each word was enunciated in a loud voice: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” I heard it perfectly. I left the room without a verbal response.

A couple of days later, again I went in to the same classroom and again my colleague signalled for me to go over to where they were sitting. They proceeded again to whisper a remark about a child in their class. I didn’t hear them, and again the same words were spoken: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” This time however, the comment was made twice. Both times I was unresponsive. Although I hadn’t heard them clearly the first time, I knew what had been said, though I wasn’t able to voice a response. I stared, aghast, at my colleague as they reiterated themselves, looking at me with a mixed expression of irritation shifting towards smugness; smirking at their own wit. How could they think this was appropriate, even funny?

I am accustomed to letting go of frustrating moments. I can shrug off aggravated looks from strangers when I fail to move out of their way in the supermarket, or when I don’t respond to them when they address me on my deaf side. I have learnt not to concern myself with raised annoyed voices, and irritated repetition of words. I even try to find retrospective humour in times of mishearing. I was surprised at my reaction to my colleague’s comment. My usual response of smiling to create a barrier; in protecting myself from such remarks was, for that moment, deactivated. My openness in talking about my hearing loss and explaining how it can make communication difficult, especially in noisy environments, was momentarily paused. After receiving the comment I felt vulnerable, weak, confidence drained. This colleague was someone who had asked me questions about my hearing loss and had shown interest in learning about my tinnitus. I thought they had some understanding. I failed to form a verbal response because I was in shock. I was upset. I was disappointed.

I have since had time to contemplate the interaction and have structured a response for any similar situation in the future. I should have said to my colleague that while I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, that their comment hurt me. I should have told them that I understand it can be frustrating for people to have to repeat themselves, and that this frustration may be elevated when they are busy. I would like my colleague to know that I am beginning to find myself watching lips during conversation, in situations where there is a lot of background noise, or when someone has a strong accent. I am using the shapes and movements of lips to help me translate the jumbled sounds into some meaning. I should have also told them that they had a valid point – although it could have been conveyed with some compassion or during a confidential moment. I should learn how to lip read. Not because my colleague thinks so, but because it seems like the natural next step for me in developing my communication skills.

In future I would like to give some information to my colleagues about lip reading. I would like to suggest ways of helping someone who is trying to read lips. Just because someone has experienced a hearing loss it doesn’t mean, by some kind of transferred skill, that they are instantly able to lip read with ease. These skills take time, practise and patience. I would like to explain that background noise and lack of context can make lip reading extremely difficult. That reading someone’s lips whilst they are speaking behind their hand is impossible, and that over-pronounced lip shapes are not helpful for the reader.

This experience has drawn my attention to the lack of understanding my colleagues may still have of my situation. Despite having explained some of the communication difficulties I face, I know it is easy for people to forget. I don’t look any different to how I did before my hearing loss. I am thankful for the people who ask questions, who listen, and who try to have some comprehension of my condition. Yet some people may not feel comfortable to ask questions. If I don’t explain how this type of comment can make me feel, then how are people going to know what an upsetting impact such a comment may have? Next time I will explain. Now I feel ready to respond to any similar remarks in a strong and positive manner, as the hearing loss advocate I am learning to become.

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