All of my life I’ve had a minor hearing disability, although I wasn’t always aware of it. Growing up, it was misdiagnosed as speech problems, since it was difficult for me to repeat certain sounds. It turns out that that tends to happen when you can’t hear the differences between certain sounds. About five years ago, I was doing research at a national lab when I was finally diagnosed correctly.
I had previously gained a reputation for being extremely attentive, mostly because I had picked up lip reading as a way to compensate for having difficulties understanding my colleagues, and so would pay very close attention to their faces during conversations. The way that the English language works, only about 30% of its sounds can be distinguished from sight alone. I had to spend an enormous amount of energy just trying to understand what people were saying, to figure out all of the the words I was missing. This was extremely difficult when starting on a new project with brand new technical vocabulary, and it took me quite a while to start being able to fill the gaps.
My student insurance at the time didn’t cover hearing aids, and being a trans grad student on hormones, I was already paying a lot out-of-pocket for medical expenses and couldn’t afford one. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask my institution if they could help. When I started as a post-doc, my understanding of people got worse, in large part because I was no longer in a physical room with my colleagues and couldn’t lip read. It was then that I started looking into accommodations.
Through the disability office, I now have a very clear phone for conference calls, and a hearing aid for when I’m talking in-person with colleagues. It took almost a year to figure out what worked best, and within the budget of the department, as it was the first time I ever looked into help for my hearing. It was time well spent, and has made my professional life tremendously more productive. No longer do I have to exert so much energy trying to understand people, I can instead spend it on solving the problems that lay before us. My involvement in meetings has noticeably increased, and I can take part in poster sessions for the first time in my life.
I do find myself being questioned a lot when I pull the aid out in those situations where it’s hard to hear. It’s been a bit of a new experience, but I’ve found that it gets dropped fairly quickly by just saying that it’s a hearing aid and then moving on with conversation. For me, it feels like a small price to pay for being able to stay engaged.
When I leave my institution for a tenure-track position (one can hope!), I’ll have to leave my current devices behind. But with the experience of knowing what helps, and that I can ask for help, I’ll be able to hit the ground running and not have to worry nearly as much about missing out on what’s being said.