Approximately 1 in every 8 Americans experience some degree of hearing loss (Binder, 2011). This is approximately 36 million people – just in the United States. While to some, this number may seem overwhelming or unfortunate. For me? I have to admit to a small “thrill” – for you see… I’m a part of this “family”. I am one of those “1 in 8”.

What is “family”? The obvious definition includes those to whom you are related. I’m very grateful for my immediate family, for in many ways they fall into the “family” of which I am writing today as well. For the purpose of this post, “family” consists of individuals who understand by direct or indirect experience, a life that may be different as the result of disability – whether it be congenital or adventitious.

Hearing Loss Association of America

I recently had a couple of wonderful weekends that helped solidify this feeling of “family” for me. The first was when I went to one day of the 4 day national convention for the Hearing Loss Association of America. This year it was in my area, so I could not pass up trying to go at least one day. I was able to attend a number of workshops, all of which had CART. The rooms had terrific amplification, so I was able to hear the speakers of each workshop very well thanks to my cochlear implant. However, there were a number of people in each workshop who used the CART. On a large screen next to the speaker, every word spoken was also typed by a trained captionist. Those who had never experienced CART before, and therefore had never experienced workshops such as these that were truly accessible, hung on every typed word! As I looked around, nearly every ear had a hearing aid or cochlear implant – sometimes BOTH. I counted six hearing assistance dogs in attendance at the convention on Saturday. I was surrounded by “family”. Even those without hearing loss knew someone who did, were family members, or professionals that worked with our population. Between workshops old friends and new friends often crowded around talking. I couldn’t get over feeling like I knew these people. There were no snide comments or competition over who had the better cochlear implant or hearing aid. We were all “family” – with an intimate knowledge of what it means to live with hearing loss.

I attend a local chapter of HLAA, but being at a national event has no equal. The Internet has allowed people with similar disabilities to contact, share information, and get to know each other in a supportive environment. Some of the people I met I had only known online. However, these national conventions allow us to meet face-to-face! What a treat to literally hug the neck of some of my “family”!

This past weekend, I was able to hang out with a wonderful friend who has bilateral Nucleus Freedoms. She lives in North Carolina and since my husband and I were going down to visit his mom and dad, I took the opportunity to spend the morning with her. She took me to one of her favorite places – the North Carolina Zoo. I hadn’t seen the zoo in at least nine years – not since I had moved away from the area in 2002. We have so much in common in addition to hearing loss. No – we do not have similar backgrounds or childhood experiences. But we both are advocates and do all we can in our own small realm of influence to make a DIFFERENCE. She is a sensitive soul who sees much more than a normal set of eyes can see. It shows up in her photography and in the simple things she points out. A whispered, “L o o k“, usually yields a treat of catching LIFE in an unexpected way. I consider her “family” although we are not related.

Fidos For Freedom, Inc.

At Fidos For Freedom, clients include those with mobility issues caused by numerous types of disability or illness, and people with hearing loss. I cannot count the number of different types of disease, invisible illness, and disabilities present in our “family” at Fidos. The fact we are there for the same reason makes us “family”. Whether client, trainer, puppy raiser, volunteer, or DOG… we find a bond and sense of “family” that cannot be found in other groups in our lives.

I am thrilled to share information and get to know people all across the U.S. who are partnered with assistance dogs. Our disability or invisible illness may be different… but we are the same. Some have partners from organizations like Fidos and some are owner-trained teams. Regardless, we are “family” and I feel a loyalty towards these teams that defines the kind of “family” we are.

Sometimes FAMILY are not “Family”

My readers share with me sometimes that trying to get family to understand what it is like to live life in “their shoes” is quite difficult. For those who acquired disability or invisible illness later in life it may make more sense that family members such as parents and siblings seem incapable of grasping who you are now. However, there are others who have shared that even though their own challenges began at birth, family members are unable to fully understand (or perhaps cope?) what it is like to experience life with additional challenges. I truly believe that people with disability and invisible illness are more capable than those who are “normal”. Learning to adapt, and seeking support, information, and techniques create a malleable, strong individual. Oh sure! There are times we flounder. Change is never easy. But the end result yields a person who is extremely ABLE – not disabled. It is unfortunate that many people to whom we are related are unable to really connect with us once change takes place. Perhaps our peers often become “family” to us because they help us stay connected to life in a more positive way. They understand. Relatives often lose contact with us or only see us once in a great while. These individuals who offer daily support, information, and “family” literally evolve into a close knit community and family. I have had some readers share that they are closer to those in their peer group (disability group) than they are to siblings, parents, and other relatives. They have shared that not only do these “real” family members not understand – they don’t want to understand. I was recently reminded that my own siblings do not really know who I am anymore. After something rather tragic occurred in a relationship I find now broken, I wailed to my mother on the phone how terrible it all was. I shared some things with her that I had never shared before… and she responded, “You never shared these things with me when you were going through this”. So I am (painfully) aware that sometimes our family members are unaware and out of touch because we withdraw.

I am blessed to have family who are also “family”. My immediate family have been a safe haven of support throughout all of my adult life. My children have never known me without hearing loss. Mom’s favorite word growing up has always been “huh?” My husband held my hand both literally and figuratively throughout the process of losing my hearing over 12 years. When I became profoundly deaf, he was my biggest cheerleader in seeking other technology that would help me hear again. My family willingly sacrificed so that I could attend trainings and eventually receive an assistance dog so that I could be more independent. My immediate family members advocate for those who have any type of special challenge. They have participated in TBI (traumatic brain injury) camps, hearing loss conventions, local HLAA chapters, Walks for Hearing, cancer awareness walks, and much more. They know and realize that  disability or invisible illness does not define the person. They have always seen the PERSON first. Because they understand what it means to live with disability or invisible illness simply because they LOVE someone who does have challenges, they are “family” as well as family. I hope that many of you have family members that are also “family”. People who support you without hindering you. People who cheer you on and look forward to your eventual success.

Look for – and BE – “Family”

If you are currently adjusting to acquired disability or invisible illness – please know you are not alone. Find a computer and Internet access. It won’t take you long to discover you are not walking this road alone. As you reach out, look for ways to connect and be “family”. I promise you that there is no other feeling like finally… belonging.

Binder, M. (2011). Hearing. The Ear Man: Hearing Aid Service. Retrieved June 28, 2011, from http://www.theearman.com/hearing.html

Denise Portis

© 2011 Personal Hearing Loss Journal


“Tag” You’re IT

Chloe and I were recently in a Wal-mart shopping. In the household cleaning section, one doesn’t expect to run into a child. Among the 4 or 5 other shoppers and carts stood a 5 or 6-year-old little girl. I don’t know how she ditched mom, but she was obviously unsupervised. She was about 20 feet away when she first caught sight of us and slowly made her way down the isle towards us. Inwardly I cringed… for I didn’t really feel like asking her not to pet Chloe. Instead she got close enough and looked at Chloe’s vest (although I’m not sure she could even read), and then at the side of my head where my cochlear implant and BLING sparkle for all the world to see!

She smiled at me and said, “This is a WORKING DOG”.

I replied (with some surprise), “You are EXACTLY right! Chloe is a working dog”.

Unsure of what communication might follow that exchange, she smiled impishly up at me… reached over with her index finger an POKED me while exclaiming, “TAG! You’re IT”. With a squeal she was gone and around the corner with pony-tails flying behind her.

Service Dogs and Play

Chloe’s tail started wagging and she looked up at me with an expectant, “Yeah! Let’s go!”

I just grinned at her and caught sight of a lady about 3 yards from us just grinning from ear-to-ear, having seen the whole thing. I smiled back, calmly walked by her and just as I was passing her – reached out and poked her while saying, “Now YOU’RE it…”  She burst out laughing and we went on our way.

I am asked occasionally if Chloe is ever allowed to play. Most recently this came up at a DEMO we did for the Department of Disabilities for the state of Maryland. I think people love the idea of working dogs, but often wonder if the dog is ever allowed to be “just a dog”. We always assure people that our dogs have plenty of opportunities to rest, play, and just be a dog. They are frequently rewarded throughout the day with treats, praise, and physical touch. Walmart is not the BEST place to induce Chloe to play, so I opted out of the game of “tag”… but I can assure you that Chloe is allowed to play with our family dog, and with family members very often.

All Work and No Play

Just like people, dogs need down time. Especially working dogs IMHO. But we could learn a few things from our furry partners. Chloe often naps when waiting in line at a busy cash register, or if we are traveling by Metro, airplane, or even the family car. She knows when to rest and get some shut eye. She also knows when to play and enjoy a major tail-wagging romp! I try to remember to take “5” and rest when I can. I try to get 8 solid hours of sleep each night because I actually hear better, and walk more steady if I make sure a good night’s rest is priority.

Perhaps we should all play tag from time to time. Hey! It is good exercise, and I’ve not met anyone yet who didn’t smile after being tagged!

Denise Portis

© 2011 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

“I See Him as a Friend”

Hearing Elmo welcomes guest writers! (I figure you get tired of only hearing my point of view!) Today I welcome a distant cousin, Ted. Ted and I “met” on Facebook, connecting with family and friends in a way only Facebook seems able to do. It is great fun to talk to him because we grew up in the same small town, “middle of nowhere”, farming community. Ted works with a non-profit called “Aids – Out of Africa” (http://www.facebook.com/pages/AIDS-Out-of-Africa/109654919088134) and is also active in his community, helping to dispel myths about people with disabilities. How? By being their friend…

Hope to hear more from Ted in the future!


When my cousin was asking for stories for the web site about disabilities I was a little confused.   But I walk around in a state of confusion anyway so it didn’t bother me.  I did however start thinking.  Disability is all around us every day.  Sure we recognize the Disabled Vet in the wheelchair or the blind with the service animal, but we miss many of the other truly disabled.  Disability comes to many in all forms.

Having been associated with the Veterans Hospital for the past 30 some years, I have become accustom seeing “Disabilities” and don’t stop to stare or wonder the why’s or what’s of this concentrated elite group of America’s often forgotten service men and women.  Some are missing arms or legs, some are blinded, some in wheelchairs.  But many have hidden  “Problems” that we don’t see.  They are legally blind but do not require a service animal or the typically white cane.  Some are deaf but with the miracles of new hearing devices are able to communicate without being obvious.  When I walk into the audiology clinic, the receptionist, Peggy, greets every patient looking directly at them, speaking clearly, just a touch of volume, and a little slower.  Suddenly I realize that she cares.  That means a lot.  And when scheduled for the optometry clinic the doctor personally called my home to reschedule an appointment because she was being transferred and wanted to personally follow up on a surgery.  I take that kind of service very serious.  I appreciate those who care to go that little extra distance.

Now for the purpose of this writing and the  personal note.  Charlie is a friend, I call him a friend because he always takes the time to come over and speak to my wife and I every Monday at the weekly auction we seem to always attend.  He jokes with us and tells us what has happened during the past week.  If Mary is not with me, he will ask about her and the same if I am not in attendance.  He pats me on the back and makes me happy.  I see him on occasion at different locations all over town.   He is the kind of friend that never complains about his personal problems.  If his personal transportation broke down, I would help him replace or repair as necessary.  However he has a disability that many shy away from.   Charlie is limited mentally.  His appearance also makes many uncomfortable.  His teeth were not taken care of but that is in a stage of repair now.  Most people see him as a nuisance or embarrassment.  I see him as a friend.  I have asked myself what is there about Charlie that makes me proud to be his friend?  It is because his “Disability” only exist in the minds of the “Normal” people around him.  Charlie is seen all over town because although he is not allowed to drive, rides his bike pulling a trailer, around to selected locations to do odd jobs.  He is at the auction because he helps load items for buyers for whatever “Tip” they might give him.  During the night he sometimes shows me how much money he has taken in from his work that night.  In his mind he is not “Disabled”.  He is however truly challenged.   He lives alone, and pays his rent.  He wears clean clothes, and is showered and shaved.  I cannot compare him to all the people that thinks the world owes them a living because he makes his own lemonade out of the lemons that nature has dealt him.

So as we walk past people at Wal-Mart, or set beside them on a bus, we don’t really understand the limits of their “Disabilities”….. Perhaps better yet we do not understand their unlimited  “Abilities”.  Maybe the person just needs a friend.  I don’t think the word “Disabilities” is a true description.  I think that the word Challenged is better.  But neither fits my friend Charlie for in his mind he is not challenged nor disabled,  he is making a living the only way he knows how.  If he receives a little help along the way, that’s great.  But he would rather be accepted as is, where is.  So when you are asked to repeat a statement because the person could not hear or more likely not understand you, don’t get angry or say, “Forget it” for they can’t forget.  Try to be more like Peggy, louder, slower and facing them.    If the vision impaired need a little assistance, offer to help.  Just a, “Need some help with that?”, can make a person’s day.   It might even make your day.  An older person might be struggling to reach an item off the shelve.  When you hand it to them, there is a moment where you feel like you have really done something great and you have.

Ted C. Burhenn.