I Can’t See What You’re Saying

Sunde White illustrates her essay about hearing impaired people not being able to read ips during the pandemic.

I’m sorry, what?

I’m a loud talker, my voice just travels.  It’s probably not genetic though, my family jokes that it’s because the sister closest to me in age became hearing impaired in childhood so I subconciously just started talking loud so she could hear me.

In the 70’s and 80’s some butcher doctors invented a surgery for little kids with chronic ear infections called Myringotomy.  It’s where they slice into kids’ eardrums and insert a tube through it into the middle ear where it drains out any fluids and aerates the ear.   I guess this still exists today but back then it was really common even though it turns out that little kids just have little ear canals that get ear infections easily and they will eventually grow out of them.

My sister and I both had chronic ear infections but on top of that, I couldn’t say my R’s.  This was probably adorable, but speech impediments can be a sign of hearing loss in children so it was decided that both of us would get tubes put in before our hearing got worse.  The morning of the surgery, they took our temperatures and it turned out that I had a fever and couldn’t be operated on.  I cried as they wheeled my sister into surgery.

I was jealous that she got a cool hospital bracelet and was treated special for a few days but I had actually dodged a bullet.  My sister would have chronic ear pain for her entire childhood.  Flying in planes would be excruciating, swimming without getting water painfully in her ears, impossible.  When they finally took the tubes out her eardrums were so scarred that she’d never hear normally again.   In the meantime,  I grew out of the earaches and a few months of speech therapy allowed me to say my R’s just fine, with the occasional exception of the word boulevard.

So I thought of my sister when a good friend of mine, who is hearing impaired, confided in me how difficult the pandemic was for her because everyone is wearing masks, making it impossible for her to read lips.

“I didn’t realize how dependent I was on reading lips.” She told me.  “I also get so much context from facial expressions.” She continued.  “And speech gets muffled through the mask.  It’s so isolating to not be able to understand people.”


It turns out that 1 out of 8 people are hearing impaired. That’s a lot of people that are struggling even more than the rest of us during this time of sheltering in place.  I don’t know what to do about this except to point out that if someone doesn’t acknowledge you or it seems like they’re ignoring you at the grocery store, it could just be that they are hard of hearing or deaf and they can’t see what you’re saying.

I heard a nice story recently about a guy named Matthew Simmons that works at Trader Joe’s.  He’s deaf and with everyone wearing masks, he could no longer read their lips and facial expressions to understand what they were saying.

“It made me upset because I couldn’t help and left me feeling defeated.” Simmons said.  He went on to say that some customers were “unaware that I was not ignoring them or being rude, but simply did not know they were speaking to me.”

So he and the manager figured out  to make him a shirt that read, “Deaf. I read lips.”  On the front and “I’m deaf, please tap me on the shoulder for help.” On the back.

“This helped” said Simmons, but he still couldn’t understand what customers were saying to him.  “how can I assist them if I have no idea what they’re asking for?”

That problem was solved when his manager brought in a small white board that his customers could write their questions on with an erasable marker.

One of his customers wrote to him, “It must be hard with everyone wearing masks! Thank you for your help!”

On a recent Instagram post Simmons wrote about all the solutions optimistically. “Things are going to be better!!”


**Stay safe everyone! We’ll get through this together!**






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