Introduction to On the Fence: The Hidden World of the Hard of Hearing

On the Fence: The Hidden World of the Hard of Hearing is a book that is long overdue. While I’ve had the pleasure of writing for deaf newspapers and publishing deaf-related books, all along something was clearly missing.

Ronnie Adler, one of the featured writers in this book, got the ball rolling in 1997 when she stood up and asked:

What about the hard of hearing?

Ronnie asked this question during a panel discussion on Deaf culture. I was one of the guest speakers and let me tell you, she had us stumped!

There was this uncomfortable pause for what felt like an eternity. People hemmed and hawed. The guest speakers nervously looked at each other in hopes that someone, anyone, would be able to offer a suitable answer. Finally, I came up with this brilliant response:

Geez, that’s a good question.

It was like Ronnie came from another planet. And shame on me, because I used to live on that planet. Yes, I grew up hard of hearing myself. Somehow, I’d forgotten—or maybe repressed?—everything about it.

Ronnie’s question was the first of three turning points that made me realize it was time for a hard of hearing book that would hit home for many readers. The second turning point came two years later.

In 1999, there was a Family Learning Vacation at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Maine. I was invited as a guest speaker and also wound up leading a discussion group with hard of hearing children. Most of them seemed to be somewhere between the ages of ten and thirteen.

There was this one kid, about twelve years old, who stood out entirely. The topic of our discussion was how we, as deaf and hard of hearing individuals, handled large family events. More specifically, what do we do when totally lost in a room full of chattering, hearing relatives?

“I say hello,” this kid said. “And then run!”

I asked him what he meant by “run.” He explained that he would approach his relatives on a one-by-one basis, engage in some superficial conversation, and then make a hasty retreat before the conversation evolved beyond “How are you,” “How’s the family,” and “How’s school.” Unbeknownst to virtually everyone, this kid was manipulating each and every conversation!

He was an expert at lip-reading superficial conversation because he knew what to look for. But he also knew that if anyone changed the subject, he would have been like a deer frozen in the headlights. So he took control, mastered the art of how-do-ya-do, and moved on as quickly as possible.

“Isn’t that exhausting?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he admitted, with several other hard of hearing kids nodding affirmatively. “Sometimes I sneak out and go to my room to play Nintendo for a while.”

This was one of the best group discussions I’d ever seen. It was not just the young boy’s confession that struck me hard—it was also the knowing looks on the other kids’ faces. This twelve year old kid had validated the experiences and frustrations of everyone else in the room that day.

As powerful as this experience in Maine might have been, for whatever reason I put the hard of hearing topic on the backburner once again. I returned to my deaf life in Pennsylvania. After all, I had graduated from Gallaudet University (a.k.a. Deaf Mecca), married a deaf woman, and worked as a school counselor in the deaf-friendly environment that is the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. Once you go deaf, you’ve left, I often joked. Hard of hearing issues were no longer relevant. Or were they?

In 2002, I found myself at a mental health workshop for counselors and therapists who work with the deaf and hard of hearing. The keynote speaker, Dr. Sam Trychin, happened to be hard of hearing himself.

At first I enjoyed Dr. Trychin’s presentation with detached amusement. Although I found him to be a very fascinating and talented speaker, initially I could not relate to him. Nonetheless, I enjoyed his anecdotes about his hard of hearing experience, including some embarrassing misunderstandings he’s had when conversing with hearing people. The audience chuckled along with him as he detailed the humorous pitfalls that come with a hearing loss.

And then, Dr. Trychin switched gears and let us know that the hard of hearing experience is not entirely a laughing matter. Included in the daily grind of being hard of hearing, Dr. Trychin explained, are some not-so-funny physical and emotional symptoms. The mental stress of constantly trying to keep up with what people are saying can eventually culminate in some very real problems such as muscle tension, fatigue, high blood pressure, irritability, and much more.

At this point I was no longer a detached observer. I could not help but think about all those years in school when I had to sit up front, read lips, wear my hearing aids, and still make a fool out of myself with misunderstandings galore. Those days were a long, long time ago. Mentally, I’d brushed it under the rug. But physically, there was no escape. Several of the symptoms Dr. Trychin described had indeed manifested themselves many years later.

“Holy smokes,” I said to a friend sitting next to me. “I’m a recovering HOH!” We laughed, and the comic relief allowed me to pull myself together. But I could no longer avoid the truth: being hard of hearing is nothing to snicker at. I don’t think enough people in today’s society realize this. It was right then and there when I knew that On the Fence: The Hidden World of the Hard of Hearing was a book that definitely needed to be published.

So here we are. In this book you’ll find stories and poems from several fascinating people who have gone through their own unique experiences. I say unique because the diversity among our writers is significant. You might be taken aback when you marvel at one author’s perspective, only to find that the next one says something entirely different. I love it! If anything, this book is proof that you cannot stereotype any deaf or hard of hearing individual. In fact, it’s only the tip of the iceberg with a select group of writers. There are millions more out there with varying experiences and opinions of their own.

Someone asked if I planned to categorize the stories and poems based on the writers’ backgrounds. It was a valid question. While most of the writers are hard of hearing, we also have some who are late-deafened and culturally Deaf (you don’t have to be hard of hearing to be “on the fence”—our Deaf writers share their experience in limbo at mainstream schools). We have writers with varying modes of communication and varying preferences for use (or non-use) of assistive devices. We even have one writer, Dean Sheridan, who introduced a category I hadn’t expected: hard of hearing CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults). Ironically, I grew up a hard of hearing CODA myself without realizing such a category existed.

Ultimately, I chose not to categorize. Instead, the stories are in random order so that the diversity may shine through. But don’t let the diversity fool you; while we may all have our differences on the surface, deep down we share many underlying themes. One of them is aptly described by Sam Scott, a dear colleague and mentor:

Everybody wants one thing: to be understood.

I’m pleased to report that the writers in On the Fence: The Hidden World of the Hard of Hearing do a remarkable job of bringing forth a new level of understanding. I would like to express my gratitude to all of them for sharing a piece of their lives. Their stories and poems are powerful and heartfelt—I know that for each and every one of them, this was not the kind of assignment where you just type a few pages then click and send. It required a lot of soul-searching and a willingness to reveal what they found to a worldwide audience. Thanks to them, the words of a few will validate the experiences of many.

Enjoy your visit to the Hidden World.

Mark Drolsbaugh

Exit On the Fence Intro and Return to Hard of Hearing Page