Thursday, May 24, 2012

Music Festivals and Ableism

The Big Local Music Festival was last weekend. I was there the whole time, of course, taking pictures for the website. As a result, I have perpetual and nearly-irrevocable backstage access. This is not as thrilling as you might hope, since it mainly means that I get to stand right in front of the speakers while trying to take usable pictures of bands whose music I'm usually only vaguely acquainted with... for three days straight.

I wear earplugs when I do this. This is not so much a thoughtful precaution designed to mitigate long-term damage to my hearing. It's more because if I don't, I'll end the night with a ferocious headache and a complete inability to speak at normal volume. ("WHAT? WHAT DID YOU SAY?")

So I wear earplugs while I'm at the stages, and frequently I don't bother to take them out when I leave the stage. Or, you know, I just forget. Then I find myself walking through the festival (still taking pictures) or inside the command center (downloading pictures and recharging camera batteries) with -- at a guess -- about 80% hearing loss. I should note that the music festival is over 30 hours of overtime, sandwiched between two very full work weeks; so on top of everything else, I'm usually exhausted. Being that tired makes it easy to forget that I can fix the problem by removing the earplugs; it makes it easy not to realize that that might be a good idea when someone is trying to talk to me.

Because, of course, if they're speaking in anything resembling a normal volume and tone, I can pick out maybe one word in five. One in three, if I'm standing really close.

It's an interesting experience, and I wish I'd had the time and energy to write something about it during the festival, when it was still fresh on my mind. It changes the way I interact with people; not being able to hear or understand what people are saying is surprisingly isolating. I find myself smiling a lot and trying to look friendly; I do a lot of nodding vaguely. If someone seems to be saying something important, my first reaction is to lean in and cup my ear towards them... and I don't know why I fall back on non-verbal responses, instead of simply saying, "I can't hear you." After all, it's my hearing that isn't working, not my voice. Is that just me, or do a lot of people react that way? I don't know.

Maybe it's because I don't want to end up shouting at them by accident, and I can't tell how loud my own voice is.

And then, of course, I remember that I have earplugs in, and pull them out. Suddenly, I can hear again -- suddenly I can speak again. That usually forces the other person to recap whatever they were trying to say, or ask, or gripe about. At that moment, life returns to normal -- though I have to catch up a bit.

I'm not sure that this is what being deaf (or nearly deaf) is like, precisely because I can restore my hearing at any time. But it gives me some idea of that it might be like.


  1. I had a bad bad cold once which knocked out my hearing for a week or more. Isolating is a very fine word for how I felt. People just stopped talking to me.

  2. I have trouble hearing. I spend a lot of time cupping my ears at people too. It's tiresome to say "what? huh?" all the time. It annoys people and it annoys myself. So I allow myself one "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" per conversation and find myself accidentally agreeing to things I didn't want to agree to all too often. Because, like you said, my default is nod and smile and look friendly. Often, my brain is lagging a few seconds behind the conversation -- reading lips, trying to process bad auditory input, etc., so a few seconds after I've nodded and smiled my brain will put it all together and I'll realise I've just nodded and smiled and 'yeah'ed in answer to a self-deprecating statement like "you probably think I'm daft chattering on in this way".

    What people don't realise is that while repeating what you're saying helps, and slowing down a little can help, sometimes repeating makes it worse because I don't realise you're repeating what you've just said and so more and more words are being pushed onto my mental stack and I need someone to stop putting more words in to give my brain a chance to clear the queue.

  3. I have a friend who grew up deaf. Technology eventually provided a solution to largely restore her hearing. Her description of the experience was "terror." She couldn't stand how everything made noise... things like her keys hitting against the steering column of her car. It was really fascinating. She doesn't have complete hearing yet, and told me that she wouldn't want it....


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