For those of you who don’t know, I lost a good deal of my hearing four years ago after a bought of high fever. The loss is mostly in my right ear – I can’t talk on the phone with it – but my left ear isn’t exactly perfect either.
It’s pretty tough to come to terms with losing so much of such an important sense before you even turn thirty, and it’s been years of processing to get to a place where I felt like I was mostly okay with my lot.
And then the pandemic hit, and most everyone has been wearing face masks for a year (I live in the Pacific Northwest, so yes, almost everyone wears them). Masks are such an integral part of controlling the spread of COVID-19, and I so appreciate living in an area where they’ve become the norm. But being hard of hearing gets that much harder when everyone’s mouths are suddenly covered.
Living with an invisible disability
I never realized, until everyone’s mouths were suddenly blocked from view, how much I relied on lips to understand conversations. I knew my hearing wasn’t good (when an ENT talks to you about hearing aids, it’s kind of a giveaway), but this past year has shoved it in my face about how not good it is.
Even ordering coffee in a drive through I often have to ask them to repeat multiple times, but thankfully my left ear is my “good” one, so it’s closer to the barista. And anyone who doesn’t speak loudly? Forget it.
Going for walks or hangouts with friends has meant positioning myself on the side where I can hear them, quietly adjusting so that the conversation can continue. I’ve gotten good enough at this point where many people don’t even realize I have a hearing disability, because I just make the situation work the best I can.
Accepting the label of “disability”
And that’s the word. Disability. One I hadn’t even allowed myself to consider until the last few months. Sure, I might be hard of hearing, but I didn’t have a disability, right? I’m a strong, capable woman. Not being able to hear you isn’t going to stop me.
Then Washington state opened up vaccination appointments to grocery store employees, pregnant women, and those with a disability who put them at higher risk of COVID.
I read through the details, and then read them through again. There must have been a mistake. Being deaf/hard of hearing was on the list. Clearly this was a loophole because suddenly I qualified, and that wasn’t right. I wasn’t going to qualify until the very last group.
So I asked a friend who is the founder of the COVID vaccine appointment group I’ve been volunteering with. “This is a mistake, right? So many people are going to use this to jump the line!”
She very kindly walked me through the process. That deafness actually *does* impact how I go about protecting myself against COVID. Sometimes people will pull their masks down when it’s clear I can’t hear them. If someone is off to my right, I can’t really hear them, even if they’re covering a cough.
So, suddenly, I qualified. And the weight of this mostly invisible disability came crushing down on me in a way that I hadn’t felt in years. I wasn’t in the normal, healthy last round of people to be vaccinated. Instead, I qualified ahead of my mother in law who was not yet sixty five.
After long hours of soul searching, and many Facebook messages back and forth with the lovely lady who walked me through my processing, I said okay. I would go get my shot because it was my turn. So I went to fill out the state’s “phase finder” to get my confirmation that I qualified.
Most of the questions were easy to answer. And then came the tough one – checking the box that said yes, I have a disability, and that’s why I qualify for my shot now. I teared up, held my breath, and clicked the box.
Getting the COVID vaccine early due to disability
The following week, I went and got my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Before then, I shared in Women’s Personal Finance that I was going in, and why. I was blown away by the number of women who said they too were hard of hearing. And yet, I’d never actually known another person my age to struggle on that front. We’re here, but for the most part, we’re quiet about it. After all, being deaf is something that happens to you when you get older, right?
With that sharing, and my acceptance of clicking the “disability” box, I promised myself – and them – that I would finally go schedule that follow up appointment with the ENT once I was two weeks past my second shot. If my situation was enough to leapfrog me forward in eligibility, then it was time to take it seriously and have the hearing aid conversation.
The week passed, with a few moments of feeling that weight, but then I was off to the pharmacy to get my first vaccine. That appointment at which my six year old then announced to the pharmacist that “my mama’s here because she’s deaf and overweight.”
You weren’t wrong, kiddo, and perhaps if we were all so straightforward about the pieces that make us different, we would talk about them more. And make the right decisions for our bodies without the shame and discomfort that comes from being “less than” perfectly able bodied in all ways.
Ps – if you haven’t read about my experience with hearing loss before now, I wrote about it here.