Lived experiences

We need the world to understand us better - World Hearing Awareness Month

March 11, 2024

Gaby Evans
Gaby Evans

During World Hearing Awareness Month in March, numerous organisations and businesses concerned with hearing/hearing loss focus their communication on hearing protection tips and hearing loss prevention. However, this approach overlooks a substantial portion of the d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) communities – individuals who may have embraced or adapted well to being deaf.

As someone who is d/Deaf myself, I firmly believe that much like Deaf Awareness Month in September, it is crucial for those who are not d/Deaf or HoH to recognise that our lives revolve less around preventing hearing loss and more around navigating a world still predominantly designed for auditory communication.

“I do have a lot to thank the Deaf adults I met as a teenager while boarding at a Deaf school for their knowledge about services I can access.”

This allows me to be fully independent and not rely on family or friends as intermediaries when it comes to situations such as using the phone. Without having their knowledge passed onto me, I wouldn't be as independent as I am now.

For years, I haven't made regular phone calls and instead use the Zealand Video Relay Service (NZVRS) because although I have cochlear implants (CIs), they are not a magical fix, and I still struggle with many things - making phone calls being one of them. This service facilitates communication by allowing deaf individuals to video call an NZVRS profile on Skype using New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). A qualified and experienced interpreter then translates and voices the message to the listener. Most of the time, this goes well as the interpreters are trained to keep the person on the other end from hanging up if they think it's a prank or scam/robocall, but it inevitably has happened.

When the other person has hung up, I often request that the number be called again and let the interpreter explain briefly how an NZVRS call works. Government agencies and large businesses with Aotearoa-based call centres usually understand and move on quickly with the purpose of the call. Sometimes, it takes an email from me to the company to explain that I called via the NZVRS and explain my reason for doing so. Emailing can sometimes be easier as I can write exactly what I want/need in English, my first language. It is also a direct line of communication with the representative or business I am contacting.

While it can be somewhat limiting at times not being able to use my own exact words and voice when calling someone on the phone, I am grateful that services such as NZVRS do exist as if something goes wrong or the person is hard to hear/understand, I know it is not my deafness at fault but rather the circumstances during that particular phone call. The interpreters are trained to work around or through these barriers - and I 100% appreciate those interpreters who have, during confusing or awkward calls, taken their professional hat off and put their advocate hat on when appropriate, as some people don't understand unless you are very politely forceful with them!

“My experiences with calling businesses or individuals via NZVRS aren't unique to me in any way, as many d/Deaf people around the world struggle with similar situations.”

This can be made more difficult if they need to learn sign language and may rely on family or friends to make calls on their behalf. Situations like these can be troublesome as although qualified and reputable interpreters must follow a code of ethics regarding personal information they may be privy to, family or friends are not. The d/Deaf person may put up with divulging personal information or details to family/friends when they would much prefer not to do things such as make medical appointments, which can only be made by phone call.

However, it isn't all doom and gloom amongst the barriers and struggles. In regards to my own experiences of being deaf, knowing NZSL, which I learnt at 14 years old, has opened many doors up for me in positive ways and enabled me to access services such as NZVRS, book interpreter/s should I ever need to, watch things such as the NZSL translation of the Prime Minister's post-cabinet briefings if I'm on public transport, and attend NZSL interpreted events - which means I don't ever have to focus on trying to listen to the speakers (I do need to remember my glasses though!).

For this hearing awareness month, while there will be plenty of messaging around preventing hearing loss—which is undoubtedly vital in today's increasingly noisy world—let's also acknowledge those born d/Deaf or who have lived most of their lives as HoH. For many of those who identify with those two terms the best, we don't need hearing prevention but rather for the world to understand us better.