My hidden disability and how I owned it

By Brittany Dodson, Penn State University, USA

Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
My world is quiet. I don’t hear thunder until it’s right on top of me, and sometimes I can’t hear a person talking to me. When I pick up the phone, the person on the other end sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher from the Peanuts cartoons. I’ve had this hearing loss all my life. It wasn’t until graduate school that I realized I avoided situations, because I wouldn’t be able to hear well. And it started to affect my professional life as a scientist.

Scientists and academics are sharing the issues they deal with, including mental illness and imposter syndrome. However, one of the issues that isn’t discussed is how physical disabilities affect our performance as scientists. Addressing these problems is important to help those of us with disabilities to gain more confidence and gain the ground we may have lost in our fields.

Admitting that you need help is an important first step

By Zounds (Zounds Hearing) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
When I was a kid, my schools conducted hearing tests and I always failed them. However, my parents were given no recommendations beyond to inform my teacher and to have me sit up front in class. I don’t think we told my teachers. Research shows that students do better in classroom settings if educators know that a student has a disability. Students with physical disabilities tend to underperform, have lighter course loads, and take longer to graduate compared to non-disabled students (see Further reading).

Luckily, I did well in school, but my disability did affect me socially. At sleepovers, we had to keep movies and our chatting volumes at a specific level so parents could sleep; that meant I didn’t understand the movie, and couldn’t hear what my friends were saying. I’d ask them to repeat themselves, but over time I grew tired of asking. Instead of admitting I needed help, I found ways to cope with my disability—learning to fake that I knew the content of a conversation, learning to read lips, and turning on TV closed captioning.

It’s hard to say for sure, but I think things would have been better had I admitted early that I had a disability. Teachers, educators, parents, and friends can’t help if they don’t know or understand that this is affecting you.

Merely coping can make you miss out

My disability began to affect my professional life as a scientist in two ways. First, I couldn’t hear well enough to understand lectures or presentations, especially in huge lecture halls. Background noise – shuffling papers, coughing, typing – drowns out my ability to hear a speaker, similar to the way it’s hard to hear someone speaking in front of you when a motorcycle roars by. Thus, I relied on reading lips and visuals to get the information I needed.

Second, I missed out on a number of opportunities to network. Although I’ve attended a number of conferences and networking sessions, I often couldn’t hear the person I was speaking with, because of the loud chatter around me. I was too embarrassed to disclose my problem and ask them to speak louder. Eventually, these situations became so frustrating that I would avoid them altogether. I also began to avoid people in my lab or daily life that I couldn’t hear well. I grew tired of having to try to hear them. I was emotional and frustrated, and after confronting myself about these feelings, I decided to stop coping and start helping myself.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what resources to use

The solid line in this graph shows the results of my hearing test (X’s=left ear, O’s=right ear). I have moderate loss of hearing in the low tones that is typically called a reverse-slope loss. The dashed line shows a ski-slope hearing loss that is typical in aging people. (By Brittany Dodson)

After the first hearing test I had as an adult, the audiologist said he couldn’t help. But finally, I found a more experienced audiologist and I was diagnosed with a reverse-slope hearing loss. Only 3,000 people have this type of hearing loss in North America, and it’s different from what the elderly experience. As we get older, we often lose the ability to hear high tones (ringing phones), but I can’t hear low tones (bass in music). There are blogs that go into detail about what we experience.

I’ve had hearing aids for a couple years, and it was an adjustment. I heard things I never had before, and some sounds were extremely loud and jarring – doors closing, clicking pens, clapping. Slowly, I got used to some of these sounds and my audiologist adjusted my hearing aids several times before we got it right. Now, hearing speech clearly in the situations I described before – networking sessions, lectures, and hearing my lab mates over the hum of equipment – is much easier. My hearing aids even have a program that drowns out background noises so I can hear someone talking to me in a particularly crowded space.

In hindsight, I should have sought out other services too. Most universities and school districts have disability services that will often provide all manner of equipment to help those with disabilities. There are also various support groups that can help by getting suggestions from those who have experienced your disability. For example, I recently found a Facebook group for my specific kind of hearing loss.

I now engage in conversation, when before I avoided it. I’m more confident in seminars, lectures, and meetings, because I’m not missing content. If you’re struggling with something, approach it like a scientist addressing a research question – research, experiment, and retest until you find the answer.

Further reading

Heller KW, Alberto PA, Meagher TM. The impact of physical impairments on academic performance. J Dev Phys Disabil. 1996;8(3):233–45.

Jorgensen S, Fichten CS, Havel A, Lamb D, James C, Barile M. Academic performance of college students with and without disabilities: An archival study. Can J Couns Psychother. 2005;39(2):101–17.

About Me

Dodson_Image4I’m a PhD candidate in the Entomology Department at The Pennsylvania State University. New tools are being considered to control viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, and I’ve explored how native and introduced bacteria affect that transmission. After my PhD, I plan to work as a full-time copyeditor for scientific journals and write about science for nonscientists. I’m also a photographer (lab shots, close-ups, and environmental portraits) and an eclectic reader. You can connect with me on Twitter @Dodson_Here.

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