Avoid Isolation and Live!


Lifelines for People with Hearing Loss is a worthy read in the New York Times which did well to raise awareness about the extraordinary challenges faced by millions of people who are hard of hearing.  It parlayed to medical evidence correlating progressive hearing loss and dementia; and it theorized that those who suffer gradual auditory decline may have “diminished cognitive reserve” due to “overworked brains” as they struggle to accommodate.

I was fascinated. I could relate, for example, how my mind goes into overdrive attempting to interpret visual cues all day. This new way of “listening” to you takes considerable mental effort to ascertain even a fraction of your abundant vocal eloquence now denied.

And then The New York Times piled on the bad news with this observation:

As hearing worsens, they are likely to become increasingly frustrated and socially isolated…isolation, in turn, has been linked to depression and an increased risk of death from conditions like heart disease.

My most profound hearing loss was sudden, not gradual. But it took me a while to assimilate the loneliness thing. It kind of sneaks up on you. Helen Keller famously remarked, “Blindness separates us from things but deafness separates us from people.” 

Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.  - Helen Keller

Of course, social isolation and loneliness are not unique to those of us who are deaf or hard of hearing.  But it is far more brutal and dangerous when it invades our lives without a sound. For me at least, it  proved at first to be a major hit to the very lifeline that connects us.   

Between You and Me

Here’s how it happened between you and me:

Upon my losing all hearing in June 2010, face-to-face communications were initially more difficult for both of us. You kindly tried to hide it, but I saw the frustration on your face many times as you grappled to convey your rich ideas in Tweet-size bullet points.

You talked right past me at the speed of voice.

Sometimes you talked right past me at speed-of-voice as if I could magically read your lips. Of course, I could not. You may have kindly slowed your speech and repeated key words. But I saw you sigh about it. Yes I did.

Then you took to writing things down on type-pad or post-it note. Some of you tried those nifty voice-to-text applications by reciting into a device and showing me the readable replay. But mostly you opted to “talk” with me using tools designed for remote communications—texts messages, email and telephone captioning services.

Integrity Lost

I learned a little American Sign Language (ASL); but you didn’t.  So that seemed a bit of a bust too.  Meanwhile, we allowed the integrity of face-to-face dialogue to be compromised for expediency. You nodded assent to assure me when I “got it” even when you weren’t certain if I actually understood.  I know, at first it seemed easier that way on my end too. So I feigned as if I grasped your words, even when I didn’t.

We opted for distance without a word between us. 

All communication between you and me seemed more difficult. So we opted for distance without a word between us. Consciously and unconsciously, conversation was avoided. Our interactions were less frequent. Your rich information flow into my life was exponentially reduced to a trickle.

It happened with all of you. Rare now did colleagues come by the office to chat. I was invited to far fewer meetings. The phone (even with captioning service) hardly rang. My daughters were not as keen to “bother Dad” for fatherly advice. Group laughter was privilege only to those in the room who heard what was so funny. Closed-end questions and one-word answers ruled the new day.

Sinking In Ominous

Thus the perils of isolation became painfully evident as my deaf adventure progressed. Over time I realized that exerting excessive brainpower simply to hear you without ears was not my gravest dilemma. In fact, the opposite were true.  My mind was not being stimulated enough. Intellectual boredom and loneliness were sinking in ominous.

Brain-strain to communicate is one thing; but not communicating at all is hugely more debilitating.  Just like it says in the New York Times.  Again Helen Keller’s words hit hard:

Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus– the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.

I realized that unless I make the connection happen, it will not.

Making the Connection

Fortunately, we have a choice. Today I insist to reject isolation and live!  First of all, I must take full responsibility for the connection. I cannot blame you for not accommodating me.

Nor can I wallow in tragic loss.  Yes, reading your words on my iPhone display absent any voice inflection or emotion is a takeaway. There is that annoying delay too; and accuracy, is well, just okay.  In person, when training and one-on-one interviewing and speaking to groups, I use CART.  That’s much better.

Unless we make connections happen, they will not.

Reading voice-to-text displays, emails and pen-to-paper remarks, combined with mastering visual cues, are now my lifelines. And it all works because I make it work.  I insist to interact with you effectively one way or the other.

I read your captioned words carefully, often twice, and I study your movements and expressions with keen interest.  If your text abbreviations and email bullets are not enough, I write you back and request that you kindly clarify.

I also paraphrase your own remarks with deliberate frequency to ensure I understand you in word and spirit.  If I want to know what’s so funny, I ask. In fact, I may demand to know. Never yet has anyone refused to tell me!

I Must Insist 

Of course I want to laugh with you.  In fact, I insist. That’s how we connect.  Even with strangers, we look directly into each others’ eyes, smile broadly and nod our heads affirming shared approval: “Wasn’t that funny!” we say to each other.  And it all happens without a word between us!

Today I must insist to be a great communicator.  I have renewed passion for connecting with you at every opportunity. I embrace stimulating dialogue and I listen to you–not to merely reply– but to truly understand you and appreciate your position and respect your world view.

Today, I efficiently utilize my “cognitive reserve” so that you have a positive experience every time we meet and greet.  Far from mental strain, my mind is now well exercised for laser-focused interaction with other people.

In short, being a person who is profoundly hard of hearing has taught me to listen better than ever.

Stick that in The New York Times.


4 replies
  1. lisa lukassen says:

    I have hearing loss due to an abusive relationship in my past marriage and I can relate to the social isolation and having everyone talk all around you but not directly to you and trying to interpret what people are saying and getting things messed up. I feel I see much more with my eyes now and find I am much more in tune because of the hearing loss. I know We have to work harder but the pay off for us is even greater than those with perfect hearing. I can live in the moment easier than those with hearing. Working hard for something has great paybacks. I am just getting back on my feet and you are ever inspiring me to achieve my goals and find my life purpose. You are helping me get the confidence to reach beyond my comfort zone and live in the now. I went zip lining yesterday and that is something I was scared to do. Next skydiving who knows. I would love to become a motivational speaker. Thanks for the inspiration again!

  2. Arlene Romoff says:

    You write beautifully and eloquently – and have captured the experience of a profound hearing loss from someone who could once hear. I believe you’re ready for the next step – and my book, “Listening Closely” provides it. To leave the struggles and philosophy of why this is happening to you – and embrace the modern technology of cochlear implants. Hearing the music again will feed your soul and your creative spirit, and I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say.

  3. Gina Oliva says:

    Hi Brian,
    I am not a regular on LinkedIN so far, but I am the author of a book that might interest you — It is called “Alone in the Mainstream” === despite the subtitle I grew up hard of hearing in Greenwich Ct. At age 21 I began to learn ASL and subsequently had a wonderful career at Gallaudet University. I retired (young retiree!!) in Oct 09 but am still very active as an advocate and as a writer. Less than a month ago I had an article on a blog for sign language interpreters called “Street Leverage” — you can google it – my article is #2 in the list on the right hand side. My father had a hearing loss, and was very isolated, and I believe much of my own journey was inspired by NOT wanting the same for myself. Yet, I did get his genes and can see how I am much like him even tho I am not at all isolated. I wanted to say hello and welcome correspondence at
    All the best to you and your endeavors.

  4. Ken Klingman says:

    Thank you for this story Brian. I’ve been trying to learn ALS and it is very hard for me. I’ve always been interested in learning the language but keep giving up on it because the true need is not there. I am not deaf but I have a friend that is and I feel I am failing or losing him because of my lack of perseverance. You are another reminder to me to keep it up. Your story here has pushed me again to restart my efforts and for that I thank you.It helps me to understand and bring to light the struggles of being deaf. Hope that some day we will meet. Would you have any information on what would help me learn more easier or faster? Right now in have only been doing tutorials on line.

    Respectfully yours, Ken


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