Deaf in the Time of Coronavirus

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This is a post about deafness, not theft, but bear with me.

Some lowlife stole the outgoing mail from my mailbox a few days ago — water bill, phone bill, couple of greeting cards, and a survey from the Audubon Society. Around noon I had noticed that the front flap was hanging down and the little red flag was still up. I went out to the street to check and found the mailbox was empty, which is odd. We almost always get mail, if only an appeal for a donation from the PBS or St. Jude’s and coupons for fast-food joints.

Still, I didn’t get anxious. I just chalked it up to an off day — until I noticed, a few hours later, a postal truck approaching our house. I put down garden rake — I was out doing yard work — and ran up the steps to the edge of the street to wave the carrier down.

He stopped his vehicle, motioned for me to back up, and then pulled a protective mask over his mouth and nose.

I said, “I think somebody stole our outgoing mail.”

He said, “Mmfff mmff mmffffdhhf pff mwwff.”

And that, folks, is the punch line. Welcome to hearing impairment in the time of coronavirus.

Even with a cochlear implant that I got in 2013 after other efforts to restore my near-total hearing loss failed, the range at which I can understand conversational speech is a couple of feet shy of the 6-foot minimum suggested for “social distancing.” Add a face mask or bandana to the equation and the person speaking to me might as well be on the other side of a sheet-rock wall.

I am not alone. Masking has been a hot topic lately on Cochlear Implant Experiences, a Facebook page for “CI’s” and their families.

“I can’t understand anyone with a mask on,” said a CI who lives in North Carolina.

“Me too,” an implantee from Pittsburgh said. “That’s why I’d just as soon not go anywhere.”

“Imagine we r all in the same boat,” said a CI in Australia. “Note pad &pencil required at all times until this is over.”

Someone else posted a news story about a college student in Kentucky who has designed and begun producing masks that have a clear plastic middle section so lip readers can see the mouths of whomever is talking to them.

Great idea, though lip reading is an art that not all of us with seriously impaired hearing have mastered. And then there’s the matter of getting anyone outside your own household to put one of these see-through masks on.

Don’t go thinking that I or any of the other hearing-impaired people commenting about masks have lost perspective. We understand that this is a mere inconvenience, an annoyance, nothing like having a loved one suffer or even die from COVID-19 complications. We also know that we, too, could wind up in a hospital with compromised ability to communicate. Very scary.

On the other hand, some hearing-impaired people have recognized that their disability has prepared them well for home sheltering and social distancing.

“Social isolation has been my way of life because of my deafness for many years,” said a Wisconsin woman on the Cochlear Experiences Facebook page. “It is my normal.”

Then there’s a Minnesota man who said he realized that he had “been cruising along just fine while others are fretting.”

Until the lock-down or timeout or whatever you choose to call it was implemented, he said, “I never thought about how much practice I’d had . . . at being isolated, involuntarily incommunicado, or just plain hangin’ out with myself.”

To this observation, I can truthfully say, I hear ya.

Noel Holston is the author of Life After Deaf: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery, published by Skyhorse Books in November 2019 and available on Amazon.com and other retail sites.

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Mississippi native, award-winning veteran of The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Newsday, stand-up storyteller, lives in Athens, Ga.

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