Reverse Discrimination

Kyersten and Chloe at the "Candle Barn" in Bird-in-Hand, PA
Kyersten and Chloe at the “Candle Barn” in Bird-in-Hand, PA

Discrimination. Pronounced, the word even “sounds” ugly. According to the United States E.E.O.C, discrimination can fall into the following cateogries: age, disability, equal pay/compensation, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race/color, religion, retaliation, sex, and sexual harassment (U.S. EEOC, 2013).

For those of us with any kind of disability, the Office of Civil Rights enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 408 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. As I mitigate my own disabilities with a service dog, I was thrilled to see the ADA clarify specifics for folks like myself (See ADA 2010 Revised Requirements).

One of the more troubling truths about discrimination, however, is how quickly the “tables can turn”. Those who are often discriminated against can very easily become those who discriminate. It sneaks up on you.

Teaching the Teacher

The photo above is of my daughter, age twenty-three, and taken at one of our favorite “day trip” areas. Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, is a quaint little village in Lancaster county that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Kyersten is a young adult now and I’m pleased we are friends. She has taught me many things through the years as she usually presents tough topics with the poise and thoughtfulness someone twice her age would do.

I always welcome one-on-one talks with her, but in early 2010 I initially was NOT pleased when she informed me that I was discriminatory towards people who had normal hearing.

I sputtered, “Wha…?”

Like she tends to do she began to systematically present the proof. “For one thing, when you are exasperated with a communication problem, you call us ‘hearing people’. Makes me feel like a different species!”

She continued her argument by explaining that I often forget that people without disabilities can be just as big a champion for folks with disabilities as the individual themselves. This may be especially true of those who care for someone with disabilities.

Later, a discussion with my husband had me really feeling sheepish about my own apparent hypocrisy. “It’s perfectly natural to seek out people who struggle with the same things you do, but when is the last time you befriended someone without disabilities? You have OTHER things in common with people. For example, your faith, your background, and your profession… all put you in specific environments where you can get to know people and enjoy the reciprocal benefits of friendship.”


“License to Kill”

To “self-identify” is a topic discussed in many forums. Many believe that to do so goes hand-in-hand with acceptance and self-respect. One of my favorite “women of courage” buddies is a young woman by the name of Hunter. She and I both received our assistance dogs from Fidos For Freedom, Inc. Hunter was the first person I heard use the term “differently abled” instead of disabled.

I totally “get” choosing a more positive spin on a word many of us hate at times. However, I’ve also learned that because this is STILL the way the law identifies us (and protects us), I’m OK with being a person with disabilities. (Though like Hunter, I will quickly point out exactly how I simply do things differently…)

Labels – even those we pin on ourselves – can go SO WRONG, however. Once we start behaving as if our status “sets us apart” and in some way elevates us over another, we’ve really lost our purpose. Our goal is equality after all, correct? Many blogs I follow written by people with disabilities or who live with invisible illness, simply want to be accepted and treated normally.

I’m disabled and YOU are not… therefore I’m entitled to this, and This, and THIS. Obviously, a person who does this has missed the point. Yet, just as we may inadvertently reverse discriminate against those who live WITHOUT disability or invisible illness, we may choose to wear our “badge” as if it gives us free reign to disrespect others.

Guard your Tongue

Are you a person with a disability? Do you live with invisible illness? Does a chronic medical condition shape who you are? Do you have a service animal?

YOU are a person of influence.

Recently, I went to get a new contact prescription. I’m having to do so every 4-6 months unfortunately. As a result, I’m getting to know my eye care professional very well. At my last appointment with her encouragement for me to “see a specialist” ringing in my ears, she rolled her chair closer to me and said, “Can I share something with you?”

Immediately wary of the WAY she said it, I hesitated but said, “Sure! What’s up?”

She shared, “Until I started seeing you, I hated knowing a hard-of-hearing patient was waiting for me in the examination room. In the past, hard-of-hearing patients seem to be defensive, argumentative, and easily frustrated. I understand it can be hard to look through corrective lens with the Phoroptor as it means you cannot see my face to hear, but you are the first to not act as if it is my fault”.

I was stunned. I’ve always used humor to try and alleviate any discomfort others may feel as I enter an establishment with service dog and blinged-out cochlear implant. Yet later, I found myself wondering if I had ever treated someone poorly simply because I was frustrated.

Hopefully, my ability to laugh at my own fax pas and miscommunications will compensate for some of the bad experiences my optometrist had with people who have hearing loss. With regret, however, I could remember many times where I “blew it” and had a negative influence.

One rainy day, I entered a new building on another campus for a class and stopped at the security desk for directions. Before I could state the problem, the campus officer asked, “Why is that dog in here?”

Yeah. She could have stated it a little more diplomatically, but I became immediately defensive. I blurted out all the ADA information I knew about service dogs and then said with exasperation, “Where are the elevators for the classrooms above?” Several weeks later after classes were finally routine for me, I had to stop and apologize to her. I was out of line.

Every encounter you have with people at work, stores, places of business, and even church are an opportunity for you to be a GOOD influence. You set the stage for future encounters for these folks. We can be a good influence or a bad one. We shape future encounters for people just like us. Remembering that has helped me be a little more patient.

Bottom line, my point? Let’s practice what we preach…

Denise Portis

© 2013 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2013). Discrimination by type. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from

Look Out Behind You…



Look Out Behind You… and Call Your Dog!

We practice many things at the training center at Fidos For Freedom.  At first glance, the exercise may seem time consuming and even confusing. (My kids ask me from time to time exactly HOW are they going to use Geometry in real life?  Why do they have to do the practice exercises if they will never use it?)

I have to admit that occasionally I think to myself, that Chloe and I will never use a certain command in public.  I wonder from time to time, why we seem to practice some of the commands that we do at the center. I always participate, however, as I have learned to trust the trainers and their judgment in such matters.  One exercise we do several times a month is a response to the command, “Look out behind you and call your dog!” Clients are to take a quick look behind them to make sure nothing is in their way. You then take two or three quick steps backwards, and give the formal command “Fido, Come!” to your dog.  The dogs have been trained to quickly position themselves in a “sit” in front of you, with their nose facing your stomach.  I have very poor peripheral, so a “quick look behind me” has never been an easy task! For me to take two or three “quick” steps backwards, can mean a spill on a day my balance is really “off”.

I have to admit that internally I grumbled from time to time when asked to perform this command on the training floor.  Never again…

When Least Expected, It May Come in Handy!

This past Friday, I left the house early to go to Wal-mart.  I have a love/hate relationship with Wal-mart. On the one hand… I save quite a bit of money at this store. They tend to have a big selection, carry name brands, and have great sales. On the other hand… the lines are awful, it’s hard to find a place to park, and the stores I go to are often messy. (Not easy to navigate “messy” when pushing a cart with a working dog alongside!)

I have found, however, that if one goes early in the day on a weekday, it isn’t too much of a trial. So Friday morning – bright and early, Chloe and I plus my son Chris, headed to Wal-mart.

Chris went to look for a game that was suppose to be “out”, so Chloe and I headed into the pharmacy section alone. I noticed almost right away that she’d startle, and then cock her head to listen carefully about every three or four feet. I was busy looking for my shampoo, but automatically watched her a little more carefully for any further clues as to what she was hearing. As we neared the end of the aisle, her ears were perked up and she looked nervous. Every few seconds, I caught the sound of “something”, but honestly could not tell for sure what it might be! As we rounded the corner, a harried-looking mother with a couple of youngsters in tow came around the next aisle. The kids were screaming and crying, and one toddler was in a sprint away from mom. The toddler hit the end of my cart head-on with both hands and SHOVED. Two or three seconds before impact, I shot a quick glance over my shoulder and took three frantic steps backwards, and commanded urgently, “Chloe… COME”! Chloe obeyed immediately, even though her attention was on the family.  The cart ricocheted off an end-cap of baby oil products. I plucked my purse out of the cart, and put Chloe in “heel” beside me… protected from the main aisle. The mother apologized profusely, and corralled her kids to continue shopping. As soon as she was out of sight, I squatted down to face Chloe and exclaimed:

“Chloe! We Looked Out Behind Us!  We did it!”  Chloe cocked her head to the side like she does when she’s trying to figure out what I’m saying.  (Hmm… was there a command in there that I recognize?) I was positively gleeful… and Chloe?  Well she was not exactly sure why I was so VERY excited about a simple “come” command! Her tail gave a half-hearted flop and she wiggled closer… which of course caused me to plop into the floor from my crouched position. I was totally fine with that! I threw my arms around her and explained to her out loud (and likely LOUDLY given the fact that I have a hearing loss…), “Chloe, I never thought we’d use ‘Look Out Behind You‘, and I did it!  We used it perfectly! I wasn’t hurt… you weren’t hurt!  Hey, it worked perfectly!”  In hindsight, I was very likely a little too excited about something rather trivial. Actually by this time I had drawn a small crowd of observers.

A lady reached her hand out and asked, “Can I help you up?”

“Nope”, I responded cheerfully, “that’s what she’s for!”  Chloe helped me up with a modified ‘brace’, and I reached over for my cart.

A grandfatherly-looking man stood there watching, and remarked dryly, “she’s better behaved than most kids in here!”

Still on a euphoric “high”, I gushed, “YES!  And we did ‘look out behind you‘ perfectly!”

His bemused smile turned to concern and he looked behind him with confusion. I plopped my purse back into the cart and wheeled away with my head in the clouds.

Practice, in Order to be Prepared

Later as I put away groceries and toiletries, I still had a smile a mile wide on my face. I used “Look Out Behind You“! I couldn’t help but chuckle about it even hours later!

You know? It pays to practice things! Think of how practicing even responses to uneducated questions can be helpful! As a person with hearing loss, I have heard some fairly ridiculous questions before. I have also been wounded by rude and simple-minded questions. Yet my response has not always been in such a way that I was able to advocate in a positive way. Sometimes my response, further cemented irrational assumptions by people with normal hearing and balance.  Take for example the following:

Why do you talk that way? Do you have a speech impairment?

Wrong answer: “No, stupid!  I don’t have a speech impairment, you have a BRAIN impairment!”

Right answer: “Actually I have a profound hearing loss. I can’t hear myself anymore and I know I pronounce things funny sometimes.” (I’m so thankful for my cochlear implant! My speech has dramatically improved, even when I’m really tired!)

Why do you wear your hair up where everyone can see your cochlear implant and hearing aid?  Why do you want them to see your disability?

Wrong answer: “It’s none of your business stupid!  I can wear my hair the way I want!”

Right answer: Actually I do that so people are aware that I don’t hear well. I don’t want someone to be upset if I don’t answer when called, or answer inappropriately to a question I didn’t hear well.  It clues them in right away that if they take some extra time to communicate well, I will likely do just fine!

Why do you still ask for ‘repeats’ and not hear things? I thought the cochlear implant was going to FIX you!

Wrong answer: “I’m not Jamie Sommers, stupid!” (Do you see a recurring pattern of STUPID in the wrong answers? Grin!)

Right answer: “Actually my bionics allow me to hear things I never thought I’d hear again! But it isn’t perfect hearing, and I will always be a person with hearing loss. Compared to where I was before the implant, I am doing amazingly well!”

If you are deaf, how can you use a telephone?

Wrong answer: Why shouldn’t I be able to use the phone?  I can eat, drink, and go to the bathroom by myself too!”

Right answer: We live in an amazing era of technology.  My cochlear implant can utilize a t-coil switch, which allows me to use the phone with only a little work, thanks to telephones that are t-coil compatible. I can’t use EVERY phone, but I can use MINE.

Why do you have an assistance dog? You aren’t blind, and it draws attention to you!

Wrong answer: Actually she’s an attack dog… Chloe… BITE HIM!

Right answer: Having both Meniere’s disease, and hearing loss, Chloe simply makes my life easier. She takes a lot of stress out of the fact I don’t hear well. I hear voices pretty well with my CI, but Chloe makes sure I hear all those other noises. I am much safer now, and can do things independently. If I drop things, it takes Chloe seconds to retrieve something for me that would have taken me several minutes to get myself because of my balance issues. I don’t have to ask others to help, because SHE is my “helper”.

If you have an acquired disability, I’m sure you too have heard your share of “stupid questions”. Perhaps your disability is not widely understood, or is “invisible”. We can’t walk around with a neon sign that says, “disabled person” over our heads. And who would want to? Frankly, I highlight what I CAN do, not what I cannot.  Perhaps practicing responses to some of the questions you have heard, will insure that when the time comes for you to reply again, it will be in a positive and educational way. After all, a curt and petty response only hurts the next person with a disability. A measured, well-thought and rehearsed answer is much more likely to produce understanding and acceptance in even the most STUPID irrational person!

Denise Portis

© 2009 Hearing Loss Journal

“Cane” Shopping

I’ve been a little depressed the past week or so.  I took a pretty bad fall a “rainy weekend” ago, and had to follow-up with my doctor to make sure I hadn’t broken a leg, arm or rib.  I was covered in bruises for a couple of weeks.  I mentioned to my husband, that I noticed that if I use my umbrella on the right side (with Chloe in heel on the left), then I do much better on rainy days.

Falling doesn’t make me depressed.  Bruises don’t make me depressed.  Mentioning “it may be time for me to get a cane for rainy days”, and darling hubby jumping all over it?  That made me depressed.  I said it half in jest, but he was completely serious.

I’ve been falling all my life.  I was one of those “accident prone” kids. I even remember one time in college, my RA told me, “Denise, you fall and run into stuff more than anyone I know!”  What is interesting to note, is that I didn’t have a significant hearing loss in college.  I only had a moderate unilateral loss due to a pedestrian vs. vehicle accident at the age of six.  (The car won)

I didn’t begin losing my hearing (sensorineural hearing loss) until I had a couple of babies at the age of twenty-five.  The hearing loss continued in both my ears for over a decade before I did anything about it.  All the while, I continued to “fall and run into stuff” a great deal.  It’s never been strange for me to be sporting bruises.  (The “ATTIC STORY” has become rather infamous!)

Somewhere along the way I developed a mild form of Meniere’s disease.  Without my cochlear implant and/or hearing aid, I have constant tinnitus.  But it is “manageable”, and I’m quite accustomed to the constant ringing when I’m not utilizing technology and bionics to hear.  I sleep very soundly “in spite of”.  Along with the tinnitus, however, I began to have vertigo and other balance problems.  It is worse when it’s a rainy day, so I know the weather affects it.  There is very little one can do for Meniere’s.  I cut down on salt, take Manganese tablets, and try to get a lot of rest.

Regardless, on rainy days I have to move carefully and methodically.  Chloe acts as a great counter-balance on stairs, ramps, inclines, slopes, etc.  However ceiling fans, fast moving bodies (like students running), or loud noises make the dizziness worse.  I face a flight of stairs “round trip, each school day.  I would think the stairwell is about 8 feet wide, but it is DEEP and STEEP.  Just standing at the top of the stairs and preparing to descend, the whole stairwell starts to spin, and I lose a great deal of my peripheral vision due to the vertigo.  It can be terrifying, but I’m confident for the most part and Chloe certainly adds stability.  On rainy days, however, you can multiply that terror times TEN.

If I happened to fall down THOSE stairs, there is no doubt I would break something.  It’s not that I’ve never broken a bone before!  My word, I’ve broken a femur, toes, fingers, my sternum, and cracked multiple bones as well.  But I’m rather terrified of that stairwell.  Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid I’ll hurt Chloe.  Perhaps it’s because I know how it would completely freak out the director of my school!  (grin)

To humor hubby, I’ve done a little “cane shopping” online.  At least some of them are pretty.

But darn… I’m depressed!  I find myself asking, “Has it come to this?”

But you know what? I can’t sit around feeling sorry for myself very long. I was taught to “belly-ache if you must”, but then recall how blessed you are!  And truly… I am very blessed.  With my cochlear implant I hear better than I had ever hoped to “this side of Heaven”.  I have a wonderful and supportive family, and a super assistance dog who loves to work.  The blessings FAR outweigh my little problems with balance.

I have learned to poke fun at myself when needed, and it has certainly made others more comfortable around my implant, assistance dog, and even dizziness.  But I really hate falling…

For now I’m “in shopping mode”.  At least they aren’t very expensive!  At least I’d only need one when the weather is bad.  At least some are pretty!  I could add a whole list of “at leasts”! I suppose that’s a form of counting your blessings.

For now, I’ll just “window/monitor” shop. At least… until hubby brings it up again.

Denise Portis

© 2008 Hearing Loss Journal