Hands In The Conversation
May 13, 2020
My favorite time is sitting with a group of friends at a coffee shop, hands flying with conversation. There’s a low murmur of background sound, but no one in the background can tell what we are saying. Everyone at the table is Deaf or hard of hearing and most of the conversation is taking place by American Sign Language (ASL).
I have an advantage over my friends because as someone who lost her hearing in June 2017, I have 30 years of speech while most of my friends have been Deaf since they were two years old or younger. I lost my hearing due to unknown causes. It could have been progressive hearing loss from childhood that was missed due to years of speech therapy, or it could have been due to several medical conditions. No matter what caused the hearing loss, my world is quiet. Without my hearing aids in I feel as if I am underwater, only able to hear loud noises and a murmur of sound but nothing distinguishable, especially not words.
Due to extensive speech therapy, I speak very clearly. I don’t have a deaf accent, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I even became connected with the Deaf Community. Once connected, I jumped in with both feet, and they welcomed me with open arms. They continuously help me learn ASL, let me practice my lip reading, and teach me how to advocate for interpreters. I regularly use captions on videos and trainings that I participate in, and I use interpreters for medical appointments.
When starting my emergency dispatcher job at Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch Center in Charleston, South Carolina (USA), I was getting used to being newly diagnosed as hard of hearing and finding my identity in the Deaf Community. I had often wondered how my friends, and now I, would handle emergency situations that would arise. Now, because I have the experience of being a 911 dispatcher and am a part of the Deaf Community, I can use that to also educate the Deaf Community.
The Deaf Community can be nervous and scared of the police because of the language barrier and difficulty with communication. I know for my first traffic stop I was terrified. I could speak to the officer, but I didn’t know if I would be able to understand him. Luckily, I had learned tools from the Deaf Community and my job to handle the situation.
As an emergency dispatcher, I face difficulties that hearing dispatchers don’t have, while also appreciating advantages that hearing emergency dispatchers don’t have. If a caller mumbles or is screaming, I rely on my maps and knowledge of the geographical area more than what I am hearing since I can’t rely on lip reading. Background noises in the center can make it harder to hear the caller on the line, and I have a special headset that goes over my hearing aid to cover the microphone so I can hear.
Wearing bilateral hearing aids and a one-sided headset often means when the room gets loud from an influx of calls and in-progress events, it can become hard to hear what is going on with the caller. I can take my left hearing aid out and wear only my right hearing aid under my headset. There is silence to my open ear and only the caller’s voice coming in under my headset. It’s in the moment when I can turn off the rest of the world that I realize what a benefit being deaf is compared to hearing emergency dispatchers.
Losing my hearing wasn’t a devastating thing for me. In fact, I asked my audiologist if my hearing aids would have a mute button on them for moments when the hearing world became too much. At times, having one foot in the hearing world and one foot in the deaf world is incredibly hard, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I love what becoming deaf has taught me and the experiences it has provided.
About the Writer: Brittany is a calltaker at the Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center (Charleston, South Carolina, USA), where she started her career in emergency dispatch in 2017. She is active in the North Charleston Deaf and hard of hearing Community.