I hesitate to even post about this topic because I’m sure to get a little backlash about this viewpoint. Because of that, you will see interspersed throughout this written confession, links of scholarly evidence and citations to peer-reviewed articles that will lend a little more credence to what I’m about to say. I don’t want it to be just an opinionated article, after all!
Confession: I Don’t Play Well With Others
Now if my mother is reading this, she is likely “nodding her head in agreement” but that is because her clearest memory of me is the bossy older sister, not at all afraid to confront people (they call me Vina Jewell Jr. in my family), and stubbornly opinionated. However, when you grow up in a small farming community and go away to college, there isn’t much chance your mother will be able to get to know the adult you’ve become.
Don’t get me wrong. Mom and I talk weekly. But a FaceTime call is a great deal different than seeing someone day in and day out. However, the fact that I don’t play well with others as an adult has nothing to do with the negative characteristics I hope to have left far behind me in my childhood.
As a 49-year-old woman who readily identifies as being differently-abled, “playing” often means quiet, reflective time, or interactions where I’m present but only “just”–in that I do not have to interact with those around me. For example, my husband and I will watch a movie together once in awhile. I’m a reader. I write. I research (by choice and not because I’m a doctoral student). I love sitting on the deck and staring out into the woods. I love to cuddle with my dogs.
Now some who read that last paragraph may think that I don’t like people.
I love people, and enjoy interacting with others. I believe anyone I work with will tell you that I am an eager team player who throws herself into volunteer work with passion and gusto. You see… I WORK well with others. Outside of class, I proudly advise three different student clubs and participate in a number of faculty/staff committees. I love this work. I love the people I work with, too. However, I’m working – not playing. I’m one of the lucky ones in that as a person who is differently-abled, education is a great career. People with skills, training, and education in other types of careers are not as lucky. Many people with disability or chronic illness find that in their chosen career they face both exclusion and discrimination (National Disability Strategy Consultation Report, 2009). I am extremely grateful to be a part of the education community, for I rarely face these issues.
So what’s the deal with my not “playing well with others”? Well you see? The things I mentioned earlier that are ways I unwind, decompress, relax, and “flourish in my happy place”, very few people are willing to do alongside me. (And that’s ok…) I have a few friends that will “hang out with me” and “play” with no expectations. We do not have to do a whole lot of talking. We just “are” – and are comfortable in silences and quiet places. The problem is that none of these friends live near me.
Hearing Loss and Background Noise
It may be different for folks with other types of challenges. As a person with hearing loss, I can tell you that one of the biggest barriers to living a happy and productive life alongside of others, is background noise. Some folks think that background noise is the same thing as white noise.
White noise is a steady (and unremarkable) buzz of sound. If you are as old as I am, it would be like the “snow” sound on a television channel currently off the air. When I was a kid, my older brother and I would sometimes be allowed to stay up watching TV, and we’d eventually fall asleep. When I awoke, the television screen would have “snow” with a buzzy kind of static-like noise. Background noise, on the other hand, is any extraneous sound that is heard while trying to monitor a specific sound. For folks with hearing loss, that specific sound is SPEECH while trying to screen out other sounds (and perhaps voices) from the environment. If I could burn calories for every minute I communicate with others in the normal world, I would not be 25 pounds overweight.
Background noise is the enemy of people with hearing loss. This noise even diminishes our ability to concentrate and form both short-term and long-term memories (Rugg & Andrews, 2009). Kenneth Henry (Neubert, 2012), postdoctoral researcher at Purdue, uses the analogy of numerous televisions. For folks with normal hearing, it would be like turning on a dozen television sets on different channels and asking the individual to concentrate on one show. It’s hard. It’s not at all enjoyable. It’s not something someone would ever do by choice.
Yet people with hearing loss must consciously make the choice to reach out to others, invest their time, energy, and focus just to communicate! It’s hard to communicate in a world full of background noise. It’s worth it. It keeps us from being isolated. It keeps us connected to others. It may keep us productive and working. There is a price to pay, however. The price tag is limited options for “play time”. In order to completely eliminate the WORK in listening, one needs a quiet environment. Friends tend to text one another with suggestions such as:
“Hey! Want to meet at Ruby Tuesdays after church today and eat together?”
“Let’s go shopping!”
“There’s a meet-up at the local Starbucks for mom’s frustrated with their adult children. You should come!”
“A dozen or so of us are going to go walking at the park with our dogs. You should come along!”
“We are all going to go get a pedicure! We are meeting at 2 PM”.
This is not my kind of “play time”. Now occasionally (OK… I’m exaggerating – RARELY) I will go out and do some of these things. However, there are very few people I can ask to participate in what I really consider “fun”. Even when I go out with friends from Fidos For Freedom with individuals who have various disabilities it is hard. When you do not hear well, you can be isolated even when amongst folks who really understand disability. Folks with hearing loss “play” differently.
“Hey girl! Come over and sit on my deck and watch the squirrels in the trees with me, will ya?”
“I know this great place in the woods near my home where two streams converge. It’s a great place to sit and read a book. I’ll bring the bug spray!”
“Let’s go sit by the Chesapeake and pet our dogs while we watch the ships go by…”
Having a hearing loss as an adult – even when it is “corrected” by hearing aids and/or cochlear implant, the individual is certain to have a co-morbid auditory processing disorder. This creates all kinds of communication issues that make it extremely difficult to enjoy communicating. According to Whitelaw (2015) “These types of communication issues may include difficulty hearing in less than optimal listening situations, reliance on visual information to augment auditory information, a reduced appreciation of listening to music, and difficulty understanding speech when the speaker is unfamiliar” (para. 1).
I have special programs on my cochlear implant that reduce background noise and allow me to zero in on the person right in front of me. I rely on these programs. (There have actually been times in extremely noisy environments, that I swear I hear better than my normal hearing counterparts). Even with this wonderful technology, I still have to concentrate. It’s not fun. It’s not “play”. It requires recovery time later. Is it worth it?
Well if it wasn’t, I would never leave home… and I leave home a great deal and for a variety of reasons. Just because I CAN doesn’t mean it is easy. I’ve been alive long enough to know that important things are not always easy.
How to “Play” with Someone with Hearing Loss
If you know someone with hearing loss, please allow me to provide some “playing pointers”. You will note that these activities often revolve around just being in the presence of each other. They are activities that do not require dialogue every second of your chosen “together time”.
- Board games: It’s OK, to laugh and “chit chat” over a great board game. But… turn off the TV. Don’t have background music going. If there are more than two people playing the board game, don’t have individual conversations. Every spoken word is meant for everyone present. This keeps the person with hearing loss from having to deliberately ignore the sound of a conversation not meant for them. Please don’t think that people with hearing loss can enjoy “game night” with a big crowd. The folks in my small group at church had a “game night” (with all in the family invited) one night and my first thought was, “just shoot me now“.
2. Books, reading, and discussion: Book clubs are great! That is… if the discussion group is meeting in a quiet setting while discussing the chapters that week. Sitting in the food court of the mall and discussing what you read that week = NOT A GOOD IDEA. If you like to read, ask to spend some reading time with a person with hearing loss. You read; you don’t talk. It is difficult to express how meaningful it is to simply be in the presence of another.
3. Walks, hiking, boating, and other “outdoorsy” stuff: These activities can be great for folks with hearing loss. However, many trails and parks and lakes have become very populated. This means that the person with hearing loss may have trouble hearing you if they cannot see your face. Imagine kayaking with a person with hearing loss. If the kayaks are facing each other they will do great. This also means you won’t get anywhere because two kayaks facing each other cannot move. So enjoy the time together but don’t try to tell them all about the problems you’ve been having at work. Enjoy the hike. Enjoy the quiet of the walk. Enjoy the sound of the paddles hitting the water – and the far distant sounds of other folks out on the water.
4. Movies: I’m a “hearing again” person. This means that I can go to a movie, watch it, understand it, and give it a Siskel and Ebert “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” vote — just like everyone else. This doesn’t mean I can converse about the movie as we exit with the crowd. This doesn’t mean I can walk all the way to the parking deck and discuss everything we loved about the movie. Give me a safe place to stop moving. Allow me to concentrate on the conversation.
5. Gardening, Fishing, or ART: I love gardening, though do precious little of it I’m afraid. I had a great little “deck veggie garden” this year but wondered why I didn’t feel the thrill of it like I experienced it years ago. I concluded it was because I wasn’t pulling weeds alongside my father. I realized I wasn’t thinning plants while with my grandmother just three plants over. Be willing to spend some quality quiet time gardening with a person who doesn’t hear well but enjoys getting down in the dirt.
Fishing can be a great activity.
Art, too, can be a great opportunity to spend some time with an artsy hard-of-hearing person.
Some great resources: LISTENING IS EXHAUSTING.
Not Hearing Loss – but “OTHER”
What if your challenges are not hearing loss. People who live with disability, chronic illness, and visible or invisible health problems may still “play” differently.
As a person with a balance disorder, I cannot go to the fair at the county fairgrounds and “play”.
I cannot walk to the park and “swing” on the swing set while discussing heart-to-heart issues.
If you want to spend time with someone who has specific challenges, ask them what they like to do and meet them where they are – within the parameters of what is “fun” for them. They may have a really hard time meeting you for some “play time” when it will be WORK for them. Ask how to accommodate them. I promise you that they really do enjoy being with you.
L. Denise Portis
© 2015 Personal Hearing Loss Journal