What it’s Like Being Deaf

The silhouette of a person sitting alone in front of a window
Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Hearing people will never fully understand what it’s like to be deaf, but I wanted to write something that will give them some small measure of understanding. Hopefully, by reading this article, you can begin to understand how frustrating it is to navigate the world with hearing loss.

One of the things that I’m going to explore here is the concept of Hearing Energy. Basically: when you’re deaf, understanding audio of any kind takes a lot of active effort — it’s not something you do passively, it’s something you have to expend a lot of energy to do. You only have so much Hearing Energy every day, and different things use different amounts of it (e.g. understanding somebody in a loud room takes more energy than understanding somebody in a quiet room). When your hearing energy is expended, you’re still physically capable of hearing, but processing the noise is extremely difficult and overwhelmingly exhausting.

Note: This is based on my own experience as someone with moderate hearing loss (meaning that I’ve lost a good chunk of my hearing, but I still have some left). People with different levels of deafness will have different experiences.

You wake up to your alarm flashing. The sound is part of what wakes you, but it’s mostly the bright light from your phone, illuminating the room in bright flashes of white. You grumble and hit “snooze”. Ten minutes later, it goes off again. You sigh and haul yourself out of bed. Your partner, mostly asleep on the other side of the bed, mumbles something. It’s either words or just tired grumbling, you can’t tell which. You’re mostly asleep yourself and just want to get in the shower, so you decide to assume that it’s not important.

Hearing Energy: 100%

You get in the shower. The water is warm against your skin. The sound is all-consuming — hopefully there aren’t any sounds from outside the bathroom that demand your attention for the next 20 minutes, because you won’t hear them. You slowly wake up.

You think about what you have on your schedule today:

After the shower, you get dressed. Your partner is more awake now and you have a short conversation with him. You have to ask him to repeat himself a few times, but the conversation is fairly easy overall.

Hearing Energy: 95%

You sit down and check your text messages. In a group chat that you’re in, somebody sent a link to a video. They praise it, calling it hilarious and encouraging everybody to watch it. Other people have already responded, agreeing that the video is amazing. You open it. There aren’t any captions. You try to watch it, but the audio is muffled and the people are talking fast, so you can’t understand them. Everybody else liked the video and you don’t want to bring down anybody’s mood or make them feel bad, so you don’t say anything.

Hearing Energy: 93%

Next, you open your social media feed. There’s more videos that you can’t watch. You exit social media.

You try to watch a bit of TV to relax. At least TV is required to have captions, right? You fire up an episode of one of your go-to chill shows to relax to. But oh, shit, there’s an issue with the captions — the timing is off. By a lot. You try for a few minutes, but get frustrated and just turn the TV off.

It’s not even 9:00am and you’ve already dealt with inaccessibility multiple times.

Hearing Energy: 90%

You go to work. You have several meetings today, which you’re dreading. Still, you want to look professional, so you show up to your first meeting with a smile on your face and a warm greeting for your co-workers. Everybody is talking, and you hear them as if they’re speaking from another room. The meeting starts with inconsequential talk — what people did over the weekend, how their morning is going, the cute thing their pet just did. You miss a bunch of what they’re saying, but you don’t ask them to repeat themselves. People get annoyed if you do that too much, so you’re saving those up for the important information.

The actual meeting begins. You mostly follow along, though there are times when you miss what somebody said and have to either make a guess or ask them to repeat themself. Everybody laughs at a joke that you missed and you awkwardly laugh along so that you’re not the only one who isn’t laughing. Hopefully it wasn’t a joke in poor taste that you would have wanted to call out if you actually heard it.

Somebody says your name. You look over at them. You realize that somebody asked you a question and you missed it. You ask them to repeat it and pray that they don’t think you weren’t paying attention. You were, you were trying so hard to hear them, but it’s just so fucking hard. Finally, the meeting is over.

Hearing Energy: 80%

You have another meeting. This is a one-on-one meeting with someone else on your team, so it’s a little easier. A little.

Hearing Energy: 75%

Lunch comes. You decide to read a book, because at least you don’t have to worry about how well you can hear a book. Halfway through your lunch, you get a text from one of your friends. She’s recommending you a new fiction podcast. It’s a podcast you’ve seen lots of people talking about online — everyone has been talking about how amazing it is. It seems like exactly the kind of thing you like, so you pull up the show’s website. You look for transcripts. You don’t find any. You close the website.

You get back to work. Your next task is the kind of task that requires you to have your hands and eyes engaged, but that leaves your ears free. It’s pretty basic stuff and you know you’ll get bored doing it, so you decide to try to listen to that podcast you found. Maybe this one will be okay. You put your headphones on and play the first episode. Music plays. It sounds nice. You could definitely enjoy listening to this at the start of each episode. Then the actual show starts, and the sound effects and dialogue all blend together into a wall of noise:

[The sound of footsteps — what are they walking on? I can’t tell what they’re walking on. There’s crowd sounds, are they outside? I think they’re outside — ]

And then he — went — all — and — she —

No, but — right, and then — okay, but —

[The sound of a phone ringing. Wait, that sounds like a landline. Are they inside? I thought they were outside — ]

[The characters are laughing. Did they just say something funny? I missed it — ]

You close the podcast. You play music instead.

Hearing Energy: 70%

You go to another meeting. This one is just as hard to get through as the first one.

Hearing Energy: 60%

Your last meeting is a teleconference. You’re dreading this one most of all. You call in. The three other people you’re speaking with greet you. You try desperately to memorize their voices from their introductions so that you’ll be able to tell who’s saying what. It only somewhat works. You spend most of the meeting just trying to figure out who’s saying what, who you need to send follow-up emails to, who you should send questions to. You barely remember to say everything you needed to say because you’re so focused on trying desperately not to get lost.

Hearing Energy: 40%

Work is over. Your co-workers are doing happy hour together. You’re invited, but you decline the invitation. They’ve invited you to after-work gatherings before, and you always decline. Today, it’s because you have things to do after work. Normally, it’s because you know that you’ll barely be able to understand them. It will be like the meetings, but worse. During the work day, you notice that your coworkers all seem closer to each other than they are to you. It’s not their fault — obviously they’re going to be closer to the people they talk with outside of work. But that doesn’t change how lonely you feel.

You go to pick your partner up from his job. While you’re alone in the car, you turn the music up to the volume that helps you hear the subtleties of the songs best, the volume that you can only have the music at while you’re alone in the car because it hurts hearing people’s ears. You pick up your partner. You turn the music down.

Talking to him about his day is pretty easy, as you’re the only two in the car and it’s nice and quiet. Still, you can’t watch his mouth as he talks, which makes it hard.

Hearing Energy: 35%

You go to the store. It’s loud in there. How can anybody hear anything when things are this loud? You need to talk to your partner about what you’re shopping for, but it’s hard when you’re struggling to hear him. Finally, you have everything you need. You go to check out. You let your partner talk to the cashier — you can’t really understand her. At one point, she laughs at something he said. You wish you could have heard it. You always love his jokes. You make a mental note to ask him about it in the car. By the time you’re in the car, you’ve completely forgotten about it.

Hearing Energy: 25%

Now it’s time for the other part of the day you’re dreading: you and your partner are having dinner out with your family. You feel bad about dreading it. You want to see them, you love seeing them, you love talking to them. But god, it’s going to be so hard. Still, you brace yourself and hope for the best.

You get to the restaurant. It’s the dinner rush, so all of the tables around you are filled. Your table is by the kitchen, so you’re getting sound from there, too — pots clanging, things scraping, people shouting. And you have a big family, so instead of one big conversation with everybody taking polite turns speaking, the table splits into four different conversations from different parts of the table. Everyone is talking over each other. Like the podcast earlier, everything turns into a wall of sound.

How’s — going?

Oh, the other day I — and then we — and she —

The funniest thing happened — we went to the — and then — and he said — and she said —

[Everybody is laughing. What was funny?]

I was talking to —

The person across from you is trying to engage you and your partner in conversation. You’re trying to follow along. You somewhat manage to have a conversation with them, though you aren’t entirely sure what they were talking about. At the table behind you, two kids start shouting. And there goes your ability to understand anything at the table. You grow bored, just sitting there and doing nothing. You start reading the menu again. You already know what you want, but it gives you something to do.

The waitress comes up. She asks you what you want. You don’t hear her. She asks again. Your partner nudges you under the table. You look up and place your order. She asks you a question about it. You have no idea what she said. You ask her to repeat herself. She’s visibly annoyed. You try extra hard to hear her this time and just barely manage to make out that she’s asking you how well you’d like your burger cooked. You tell her. She turns to the person next to you. You realize that you forgot to tell her that you don’t want pickles on the burger. You decide to just pick them off when the burger gets to you.

You try so hard to be a good sibling/child/grandchild and follow along during the conversation, but god, it’s so hard. You manage to have some good conversations, but it utterly exhausts you. Finally, you leave. The silence of the car is pure bliss.

Hearing Energy: -5%

You get home. You look at your messages. One of your friends wants to do a video call, and you want to talk to them so bad, but there’s absolutely no way you could understand them. You don’t have the energy to explain that, so you just say that you’re not available.

The flashing light from your phone alerts you that somebody is calling you. You grimace and pick it up. It’s the pharmacy. You’ve told them multiple times now to text you instead of calling you, but they keep calling you. You get through the conversation about your prescription as quickly as you can.

Hearing Energy: -10%

It’s time for the event. You’ve been excited about this event for weeks, but now you’re dreading it. A few weeks ago, you reached out to the event organizer and asked if they could get live captioning for the event. They told you that live captioning wasn’t an option for them — they didn’t have the money to pay for it (didn’t want to pay for it) and they didn’t think it would work logistically (was that the truth, or did they just not care enough to put in the effort?). There aren’t going to be any captions for the event.

The event starts. Five minutes in, you’ve barely understood anything. You feel like crying.

Five minutes later and you have no idea what’s going on. Everybody else is having a good time. Why aren’t you having a good time? This is making everybody else happy, why isn’t it making you happy? What’s wrong with you?

You leave the event. You go curl up on the floor of the shower, let the hot water run over you, and cry.

Hearing Energy: -30%

You barely have the energy to talk to your partner in bed. You wish you could. You missed him all day while he was at work. You want to talk to him. You try so hard.

Hearing Energy: -35%

You’re dreading tomorrow. You pushed yourself too hard today and you’re going to be feeling it the next day. You fall asleep exhausted. But finally, blissfully, you sleep.

You wake up to your alarm flashing. You grumble and hit “snooze”. Ten minutes later, it goes off again. You sigh and haul yourself out of bed.

Hearing Energy: 65%

This never ends. There is no magical day where you wake up and absolutely none of that happens. Every day, people recommend things to you that you can’t hear. Every day, you have to go to meetings that you struggle to follow along with. Every day, you plead with people to make things accessible and they say no.

Every day, you go up to people and beg to be treated like a human and they say that treating you like a human would be too inconvenient for them.

So please, when you see a deaf person get mad over a lack of accessibility, remember that we’re not getting mad because one particular thing was inaccessible to us. We’re getting mad that everything is inaccessible to us. And if you have the opportunity to make things more accessible for people, please, please take it. Nobody else is.

Writer and podcaster. Co-founder of Starlight Audio Productions (https://starlightaudio.com). @cassjosephs on Twitter.