On Hearing Loss, Reading, and Writing: A Personal Narrative

From a very early age, I was fascinated with language.

I was speaking in full, complete sentences before I even got my first tooth in. My parents described me as being like a tiny elderly person, a sort of Benjamin Button character, gummy and toothless but coherent and eager to communicate. I learned to read at age four. My first book was “Fox in Box.” Shortly thereafter, my mom started reading The Hobbit to me, which quickly cemented my love for fiction, and Tolkien’s linguistic prowess gave me a sense of the great power of language.

When I was in first grade I was diagnosed with a recessive-genetic condition called Mondrian-Alexander that gives me 12-17% hearing loss in both of my ears. It was a condition I’d had since birth; we just didn’t know about it until then. My sister shares the condition. The two of us were fitted with hearing aids, and I was told I’d be much better at socializing and understanding the people around me.

That didn’t really work out as planned. The hearing aids didn’t really help, were big, bulky, and itchy – not to mention hard to keep track of (I wonder how many headaches my parents got from wondering where we’d put them this time). Over time, I just stopped wearing them.

My hearing loss has never been huge problem. It’s certainly not a disability; it’s never held me back in school and it never stopped me from making friends. I know a lot of kids with hearing problems have developmental or speech deficiencies; I’m lucky that my disorder was mild enough that I never suffered from those things.

By the time of my diagnosis, I was already a pretty quiet kid. I hung out at the back of the classroom with a book in hand, instead of talking to friends. Not that I lacked for friends – I didn’t. I had great friends, who were as passionate about books and invented games and fantastical worlds as I was. It’s not that I wasn’t outgoing, either – I was. But not always being able to comprehend the people around you is a barrier to interaction, especially when you’re young. So, oftentimes, I preferred the company of a book to the playground adventures on the monkey bars. Games of Telephone, fondly recalled by so many kids my age, were traumatizing to me. No matter how loudly they whispered in my ear, I could never catch the word, and I invariably whispered “what?” over and over again rather than pass on misinformation to the person on the other side. (Little did I know that was the whole point of the game. I couldn’t hear when they explained the rules.) Movies, similarly, threw me off, and often I never really got the plot of whatever Disney flick we were watching in the basement.

The other night I was trying to explain to a friend why I like text messaging so much, and I told him that I think of things more easily in text than I do out loud. That’s not necessarily true – my family members will certainly tell you that I’m a passionate debater and I love sharing ideas aloud (and they’ll probably tell you that I love the sound of my own voice). But it is true that for me, it’s a lot easier to comprehend a friend when I can read their words rather than hearing them, and I don’t have to worry about mishearing or misinterpreting words.

What I’m trying to say is that being hard of hearing made me a better reader–and therefore, I think, a better writer. I was more comfortable expressing my thoughts on paper than I was saying them out loud. More than that, I was more comfortable reading someone else’s thoughts, through books or letters, than I was reading their lips, screwing up my face and listening intently, and hoping desperately I wouldn’t have to say “what?” one more time.

That has given me immense respect for the power of the written word.

I think, maybe, that if I weren’t hard of hearing, I wouldn’t have stayed in and read as much. I would have socialized a little more, sacrificed a few more books, made fewer friends between the pages and more outside in the real world. I wouldn’t have been as devoted of a reader; I might not have been inspired to write the same way I am today. I’m not criticizing children who are outgoing and social, nor am I arguing that they’ll by definition be less apt at reading and writing. I’m simply saying that my oft-reclusive habits gave me the opportunity to read, to learn, to immerse myself in these magnificent created worlds. Being hard of hearing has been, in that way, far more of a blessing than a curse, and in some odd, backwards way, I’m grateful for the excuse to stay at home, reading and writing.