I’ve lost the plot, five months into the pandemic. I’m hard of hearing and rely heavily on lip-reading to understand conversations. I’m tired of people telling me that they can’t or won’t accommodate my hearing loss. In this time of social-distancing and mask-wearing it is even more devastating when I cannot lip-read, which accounts for 70-90% of how I’m able to understand anyone speaking to me.
The casual (+/-callous) dismissal of my inability to access content or communication is painful. The inconvenience of providing captioning in a live video meeting has spotlighted the carelessness of those who can’t be bothered. These people cannot understand the impact on my inability to participate. I’ve been resigned to this for most of my life, but lately, an accumulation of incidents have taken on the tenor of stinging, hornet-like microaggressions. It feels personal in a way that I always ignored or excused before; perhaps in reaction to the ratcheted stress of this mishandled pandemic and the layers of imposed limitations and stressors, singular hornet stings have suddenly coalesced into a swarming nest.
A couple of years ago, I saw the Guggenheim biennial, and the standout work of one artist, Christine Sun Kim, made an immediate, visceral impact. Kim displayed a series of stark, smudged charcoal drawings of acute, obtuse, and right angles titled, Degrees of My Deaf Rage… . The drawings are captioned with the aspects of rage encountered while Deaf. The Obtuse Rage of a video with no closed captions. The Right Rage encountered while working for a graduate degree. The Acute Rage when someone calls instead of texting or emailing. The Cute Rage of accessibility options that don’t coincide with your actual disability.
It immediately clicked with me. Had I not requested that an agent respond to my email in writing? Was she deficient in reading comprehension? It must be, because she ignored my request, and repeatedly asked me to call her, ignoring my attempts to communicate by email. I was forced to go to LinkedIn and ask the CEO why his representative was unable to accommodate my need to complete a transaction through email instead of a phone call. He conveniently blamed it on the pandemic. Christine Sun Kim did her graduate work at Bard, where I had graduated decades earlier as an undergrad; this tenuous connection served to multiply my appreciation for her work, which precisely pinpointed the welter of emotions seething beneath every. Irritating. Transaction.
But it would be remiss not to discuss the kindnesses I have encountered. When asking for accommodation, I sometimes received it, without further ado, even when it created an extraordinary amount of work and effort, like the podcaster Laura Joyce Davis of Shelter in Place who transcribed hours of interviews she made with writers of a book that I edited. She was willing to help create a connection with unerring grace; she lived up to her commitment to communicate with others.
A post office clerk was compassionate and kind to me when I told him I was hard of hearing and could not hear him through his mask. He waved a friendly greeting; he wrote me a note to convey information. It was the tiniest of gestures, but it made me feel understood in a way that I haven’t felt understood for a long time. It was the opposite of microaggression. It was microkindness, or microcompassion–the impact of which is not to be dismissed for its apparent smallness.
In many situations, it is not an intentional slight when someone can’t or won’t accommodate my request, and I try to extend the benefit of the doubt when appropriate. I have many privileges in my life: I’m white, educated, and economically stable; these privileges have caused me to reflect on whether I must call out situations related to my partial deafness. And I think I must, to make people aware, so they can extend kindness rather than disregard to those whom they consider other—whatever the situation may be that would require understanding and awareness—whether it is systemic racism and sexism, gender identity awareness, ableism, ageism … the Karmic Compass turns like the wheel of fate; although it may seem self-serving, awareness of others may help shift the balance in your favor. As you put kindness into the world, goodly intent both uplifts others and reflects back upon you.
~Karyn Kloumann, Founder of Nauset Press