Adapting

I am obsessed with audiograms.

When I first met my friend James, the second thing I noticed was his set of hearing aids. It’s an occupational hazard–I notice hearing aids. After I got to know him, I asked about his degree of hearing loss, how long he’d been hard-of-hearing, what he thought of his aids, what kind of impact it made on his job on the radio.

When I found out my uncle had seen an audiologist for his tinnitus, I asked what his audiogram looked like. He said, Not good. He’s a farmer. He is 68. Of course it does not look good. Still, I wanted to see it.

I like watching my students from a distance. I like watching them code switch when the communicate with individuals with different communication modalities. I like watching my student who uses mobility devices use motor-planning strategies when encountering a multi-step physical task. I like watching them negotiate, self-talk, and problem solve.

Really, my fascination is adaptation.

I conducted a home visit for one of my students two weeks ago. Watching her in her “hearing” home environment, compared to our Deaf school environment, was eye-opening. I’d seen her interact with her family several times, but never in their own home. Her adaptations to that space were fascinating: the way she stared at her parents’ faces, the way she checked on her sleeping brother, the way she simplified and enlarged her sign choices, and the way she positioned herself at the table so she could see as much of the house as possible.

In my ideal world, classrooms and homes and schools and grocery stores and colleges and skating rinks would follow principals of Universal Design. In my real world, Gallaudet University is a leading source on the concept of Deaf Space, and some days I smack my head wondering why my school doesn’t look like that, and why it took us so long to codify some principles for good design.

I have a sensory or auditory processing issue. It is definitely tied to my migraines, but it is also correlated to anxiety and stress and fatigue (and the direction of causality is pretty squiffy on those). Last night, during our final rehearsal for V-Day: The Vagina Monologues, I heard everything. Where’s the problem, Danielle? you might ask. The problem is that I. hear. everything. And I can’t filter it. I can’t sort it, or focus on the important strand of information, or even know for sure if it is English that I am hearing. The same thing happened during skate camp on Sunday. There was music, I was skating, everyone else was skating, my eyes were on the track, and I couldn’t hear the skaters leading the drill yell to stop. I got really embarrassed when I was the only one still skating and someone looked at me, exasperated, and said, Um, time??

Without a visual cue, I’m lost. I’ve adapted, and I usually do okay, but when I’m skating and can’t see the leader’s face, or when we’re rehearsing lighting cues and I can’t see anyone’s face, my adaptations mean exactly nil.

I don’t have a diagnosis for my processing problem. At this point in my life, I don’t think it would help me. During rehearsal last night, I missed my cue because everyone was talking and no one was listening, and I felt scolded. I said, I know my cue, I just can’t hear when everyone is talking at the same time. I know I sounded pissed and not pleasant. I was frustrated and anxious.

James and I have a “shorthand;” it’s a way he darts his eyes in my direction when he misses something. I’m not one to jump in (because privilege and disempowerment are things I’m trying to check in my interactions), but even though it’s subtle, it’s intentional. If we’re on the air taking a caller, I’ll repeat back what the person on the phone said, or answer the question in a way that restates enough of the information that everyone stays up to speed. Chances are, if James missed it, the radio audience missed it, too. It’s a good strategy for everybody.

Which brings me around to my Big Main Point™:

The strategies James, Alicia, and I use on the radio are good strategies for everybody, even though James is the only one with hearing loss. Open sight lines and a lack of visual clutter are good design principles, period. Good lighting and careful acoustic design benefit more than just the Deaf. Not talking at the same time as ten other people is common courtesy. And using a whistle to mark the end of a skating drill just seems like a good idea all around.

Diagnoses are important for a lot of reasons, but we all have needs that extend beyond our diagnosis. And the people around us are adapting all the time: people on the autism spectrum, people with chronic pain, sensory impairments, sensory integration disorders, psychiatric disabilities. Taking principles that helps a specific population–in my examples, that’s Deaf Space–and applying them in ways that are broadly beneficial will go a long way to help all of us make those daily adaptations. Just think of a whole population of people benefiting from open sight lines and lack of visual clutter!

Public spaces are becoming more accessible and inclusive, but many programs are targeted toward individual groups. I recently got a new mantra: focus on the need, not the diagnosis. Since I first read that, my thinking has changed. My students need sign language; it doesn’t matter than their audiograms might indicate they have “enough” residual hearing for an auditory program. Our students need accessible play spaces; whether they are blind, autistic, or have CP is not the most important factor.

Paradigm shifts can be hard; this one might be fun…

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