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Hearing Loss in a writing group

Tuesday 12 July

An email came into the group, once, from someone whose hearing was a bit ropey, wanting to know how he would cope as a member of Reading Writers, were he to join. The then secretary of the merry band of wordsmiths that is our group forwarded it to me, wondering if I, with my bilateral moderate-severe hearing loss, could offer any advice.

This posed a more than usually troublesome conundrum. After all, it was not something I had previously given much thought – it would never have occurred to me not to join a writing group because of a trivial matter like my pesky cloth ears. And I am certainly neither deserving of nor in receipt of any special treatment because of it. To have my work judged in any way differently as a result would, of course, be nonsensical and, I think, almost unbearably patronising. That’s not to say I don’t get some concessions. I get to sit pretty much where I choose – most people fall over themselves to help (often almost literally) offering to move before I’ve said a word. Where possible, I read pieces of text rather than hearing them, and ask people to run me off an extra copy of anything they are reading out.

One friend in the group heroically and diligently notes down spoken critiques to be sure I’ve caught everything when it’s my turn to have my work discussed. And I will admit to sometimes playing to the gallery – I have form when it comes to asking for a repeat when something nice has been said about a piece I’ve written (on the grounds that I “haven’t heard”); or saying (innocent face) “Oh, you should have said,” when a point has already been patiently repeated seven times.

Equally, there are times when, with up to 15 people sitting round a long table, I do miss things, and retreat into my own little world, but even that seems pleasant rather than isolating. It struck me a couple of years ago that the difficulties should be drawn upon in my writing – after all, my experiences have given me unique access to a world about which many people have only the shakiest of grasps. There was the boss who said I “shouldn’t work in communications” because of not being able to hear well; the often hilarious misunderstandings (when I was a student a friend said something about having to take her anti-biotics, which I heard as having to call her Auntie Beatrix, after which “Auntie Bea” became a mythical figure who just wouldn’t go away), and the casual contempt of cold callers who put the phone down just because you’ve said, for the hundredth time “Sorry?” (Hey, being deaf has its upsides. Even so, I always feel mildly put out, surely I’m the one who’s allowed to hang up in frustration, while they’re supposed to hang on until the bitter end?)

So there is a rich vein of material to be mined, albeit with caution. I know one writer (a proper one, published and everything) who is profoundly deaf and is constantly trying (and sadly not always successfully) to stop journalists endlessly labelling her as a “deaf writer”. When I write about her forHearing Times, I take pains to describe her as an “American writer, who is profoundly deaf” – a subtle yet important distinction. Like her, I hope never to be limited or defined by the simple fact of having less than perfect hearing.

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