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
© 2011 Personal Hearing Loss Journal