One of my favorite discussions to have with people who have chronic illness, invisible or visible disabilities, or living a “new normal”, is sharing stories of how their adopted vernacular throws others they communicate with for a loop. We probably all have stories to tell. If your life is different because of a surgery, technology, or diagnosis, you may be using words and phrases that confuse and irritate folks who don’t live a similar life. I try to be careful and take a quick look around at WHO I’m talking to when having a conversation, but that is after really screwing up a lot in the early years. Here are some of my more memorable screw ups:
Your Turn On Date
Johns Hopkins sends folks my way when they are considering a cochlear implant, especially if they have Meniere’s disease as well. I have learned that when talking to someone new to the idea of cochlear implants, you cannot talk to them like someone who has already had the surgery. Cochlear implant peeps throw around terms that make perfect sense to US, but not so much to others. Case in point: I met with a lady with Meniere’s at a library who was investigating cochlear implants. At some point in the conversation I said, “Now the date you are turned on, you need to have a designated driver if possible. Everything will be so strange and you may not be able to drive safely if you don’t have someone to drive for you after you are turned on“.
Her eyes got big and she paled. She stuttered out, “Wha…wha… WHAT!?!?” I’m savvy enough to figure out by the way she answered that she didn’t understand my terminology. I thought I’d clear it up but succeeded in only making it worse…
“Yes, when you go to the audiologist and they turn you on…” I stopped. Seeing her dropped jaw will silence me. I backed up and tried again, using “activation date” instead of “turn on date”. Do you know something? Unlike others who meet with me, she never followed up with post-surgery emails or meetings! <BIG GRIN>
I Lost My Ears
I had only been activated 8 months when I lost my ears. Now for CI folks, they get that when we talk about our “ears” we are talking about the external technology… not about our “listening appendages”. I was in a super Walmart, looking for a very specific jar of dill pickles (because yes… I’m that picky), when my cochlear implant – which has a magnetic coil to keep it on my head – flew off my ear and into the pickles.
Had I stayed still and searched the immediate jars I would have found it right off. As it was, being new to “hearing again”, I immediately stood up and screeched because my world had suddenly and completely gone SILENT. An older lady shopping amongst the same shelved pickles looked at me strange. I nervously picked up jars of pickles looking for my “ear”. The lady came closer and joked, “Are you pregnant?“. I turned to her with big tears in my eyes which made her come closer and immediately quit teasing me.
“Are you OK?” she asked kindly. I looked at her and wailed, “I lost my ear! I can’t find it!”
She looked at me bug-eyed and walked away. Quickly.
Thankfully I found my CI attached to the metal lid of some nearby olives. No wonder I couldn’t find it amongst the pickles.
I’m Not Turned On
When we lived in another part of Maryland, we use to have to drive a long way to go to church on Sunday. We actually went into another county to do so. Normally my family doesn’t listen to the car radio because they know that I’m totally incapable of tuning out the radio and hearing just the conversation. However, on longer trips, I often say, “I’m turning my ears off” so that they can listen to the radio and they know if they need me they only need to tap my shoulder. In truth, it is nice being able to sit in “total silence” from time to time. It is certainly conducive to “deep thinking”.
So one Sunday on our way to church, I gave the family heads up that I was going silent on purpose. I must have moved from “deep thinking” to day dreaming. We got to church, got our stuff out of the car, and Terry and I waved goodbye to the kids as we headed over to the building where we had small group Bible study. I’m still deaf at this point and I couldn’t tell ya if Terry was talking to me. I know my mind was somewhere else – that’s for sure! We went into the classroom and sat down at the big table. Some other couples were already there. One of the ladies leaned up so that she could see around Terry and said something. It was then I realized I still hadn’t turned my cochlear implant back on. “Oh! Wait, I’m not turned on!”
I reached up and punched the correct button and looked around at a bunch of stunned faces. Terry was actually embarrassed. (If you know Terry, you know he rarely gets flustered). A few who caught on a little late began to snicker. Me? Well I thought it was just HYSTERICAL. So I managed to get out in between laughs, “Oooops. I need to find a better way to say I don’t have my CI on“. Terry quickly said, “Yes Denise. Yes you do!“. It took a number of months for me to live that one down.
Remember Your Audience
Do you live with a chronic condition or acquired disability? Have you become an expert in navigating your “new normal”? Can you “talk shop” with the rest of your population?
It’s hard to remember that just because WE understand what we mean, others may not. We tend to use words and phrases that become a part of our vocabulary. Try to pay attention to your audience. A good advocate learns to do that. You may have to deliberately choose to use a different word or phrase if no one really connects with it but you. For example, I had to stop referring to my bright purple cane as “my third leg”. I’m fairly naive and had no idea the shocked looks were from folks who had heard that phrase in a completely different context.
In order to really educate and advocate, you need to use terminology that the general public will understand. You may think a word or phrase is very obvious, but others may not ever hear that word in conversation. I was trained at Fidos For Freedom, Inc., to know how to advocate for accessibility with my service dog. The trainers didn’t tell us, however, that not everyone in the general public knows what the ADA is! (Thankfully, they also equipped us with great little brochures and handouts with the law explained on them).
“Fibro fog” may only mean something to other folks with fibromyalgia. “CFS zombie” may only be a phrase others with chronic fatigue syndrome use. HoHearies can be figured out by most of the population, but is only self-identified by those who are hard of hearing. The general public may even make incorrect associations just because they don’t understand your chosen words. I had no idea anyone would ever think “tinnitus” was something caused by a cut from a dirty tin can.
You are a more effective advocate when you “consider your audience” and appropriately explain symptoms, treatment, and diagnosis. The goal is to educate after all. If you only succeed in confusing those around you, you haven’t really helped to educate.
What’s REALLY fun is when those closest to you start to confuse others as well. Terry often asks if I “have my ears on” now.
© 2014 Personal Hearing Loss Journal