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Speaking of Hearing Loss: Optimism Overcoming Obstacles

By Gael Hannan, Hearing Health Matters, 4/24/2012

The 16-year old boy, wearing two hearing aids and a serious expression, stepped up to the podium.
“Good evening judges, parents, fellow speakers and hearing resource teachers. I would like to talk to you tonight about how my optimism helps me overcome my obstacles.”
I was one of the judges and this was the opening bell of an emotional evening.  Oh, to be young again!  I don’t know who said that, but he or she obviously didn’t grow up with hearing loss.  At 58, I can recall my teen years with
crystal-clear vision – especially with respect to my hearing loss – and I wouldn’t go back there for a minute.
The memory of being a hard of hearing teenager was painfully freshened last week.  I had the honor of judging a public speaking contest for Toronto high school deaf and hard of hearing students. The event is part of an annual Optimist Club Communications Contest for Deaf & Hard of Hearing Students, open to youth with a hearing loss of 40 decibels or more.
When I arrived for the evening session, my three fellow judges were looking haggard. That afternoon, they had listened to the speeches of 20 elementary and middle-school kids on this year’s topic, “How My Optimism Helps Me Overcome Obstacles.” Some talks were light on the ‘obstacle’ and others were hazy on the ‘optimism.’ (What 8-year-old talks about optimism?) But all of the children impressed the judges with their words of living with hearing loss and hope for the future, all of them conveying an unspoken social isolation and wanting to be ‘normal.’  But they were all optimistic about winning!
That evening, the gym was packed with the 19 high school contestants, their teachers and families. Nerves must have been running high, because by the time I got there, students had eaten all the cookies and parents had drunk all the coffee, leaving me a glass of water and two carrot sticks as fuel for the optimism-obstacle course.
Speakers were identified only as “A” through “N” to avoid any unintentional bias by the judges if they were, for example, to discover that a contestant’s uncle was an influential politician, or something.
Between “A”’s opening words and “N”’s final “thank you for listening to me tonight,” the students blew me away. A minute into the very first speech, my eyes were filling up and I adopted a goofy, encouraging smile to cover my emotion.
“A” is oral deaf and wears two hearing aids. He talked about his supreme stress at school, trying to keep up and to understand, always worrying about being a failure. His evenings and weekends were filled with homework; he couldn’t sleep at night with the worry. Finally he told his teacher about the nerves and nightmares, and they worked out a plan that lifted the weight from his shoulders. Now, he’s very optimistic that he has overcome his obstacles.
“K” has a smile that can melt butter. She wants to be an actress and she’s optimistic that her hearing loss won’t be an obstacle; in her high school plays, the director builds in visual cues so she won’t miss her entrances. Her mother
passed away last fall, but her mom’s  grace throughout her illness has helped “K” deal with her own problems and grief.
“M” has a cochlear implant and is very optimistic he can handle any obstacle in life; in fact he’s absolutely certain about this, because he’s already successful! As a member of his school’s Junior Business club, he is their top salesperson. On his way back to his seat after speaking, “M” shook hands with everyone he passed and I have no doubt that he will grind life’s obstacles beneath his heels.

Gael Hannan