My first go-round with adventure came by way of life’s adversities.
If you’d asked me four years ago if I would pack up for a five-year round-the-world trip, I would’ve likely laughed at you. I was deep in debt and suffered from some physical and emotional pains, so traveling with hearing loss was something I never though possible. But, one day, with my 39th birthday staring me down, I’d decided I had enough of watching the good life unfold for other people. I decided to dream bigger, go bold, and ask why on Earth can’t I be a global traveler too?
Somehow, having a seemingly ludicrous dream and never giving up, I find myself today living that “undreamable dream.” In just seven months, I’ve hauled my duffle bag and backpack through England, Scotland, Portugal, Spain, Croatia, and the Azores, plus a few Canadian cities. I’m writing to you today from Oaxaca, Mexico. (Pronounced “Wha-ha-ca”.)
It’s not all siestas and beach-side strolls, though. I still work for a living, thanks to my day job doing captioning for the hearing-impaired, which is weird, since I’m hearing-impaired. It’s not quite like the “blind leading the blind,” however, because the telephone setting on my hearing aids allow me to do a stellar job as a captioner. With the noise-cancelling feature, I pick up stuff others in my field totally miss.
But who I am goes way beyond my travel life and what I do for a living.
Being 42, I’ve worn hearing aids for four decades, putting me in a small group of humans. I’ve seen hearing aids change radically over that time, and also people’s attitudes toward them.
As a kid in the ‘70s, I dealt with medicine’s old-school mentality. Basically, it went along the lines of “Oh, a hearing loss? You’ll never be normal.” My doctors insisted I attend deaf school, but my parents refused to have me segregated from everyone else just because I had a little trouble hearing. They explained to the docs that it was what my hearing aids were for.
The adults struck a compromise: Deaf school in the morning and “normal” school afternoons. Guess what? I did okay in “normal” school. Next thing you know I was gone from the deaf program. My folks were pioneering in the realm of evening out the playing field for people like me. Today, the prevailing wisdom is that old-school segregation due to challenges or limited abilities simply widens the gap faced by those with limitations, while mixing those groups together means everyone benefits and stigma gets reduced.
Hearing loss runs in my family. Dad’s got it, my brother’s got it, and now even my bro’s wee daughter, my gorgeous niece Maddy, has been diagnosed with a loss. She’s only 7 months old and has worn hearing aids for a few months now.
With the gift of hindsight, I wonder how it’ll affect her as she grows up. Me, I was born with the most acute loss out of the whole Cameron clan and the result was that it was very difficult for me to learn speech. I had a severe impediment in my youth, probably leading the doctors to their “deaf school” mentality, because I spoke like I was deaf. Big, indistinct sounds lacking in the subtleties of enunciation were the order of my day.
But that was me getting fitted in my second year of life and still I had an uphill battle for speaking. Wee Little Maddy got fitted within her third month on the planet. She’s hearing all the formative sounds and utterances needed for developing language, so I’m optimistic she’ll face fewer obstacles that way.
Unlike me, when I spent the first three years of elementary school missing a couple hours weekly to attend speech therapy. Want to know the worst name you can give your hearing-impaired daughter with a lisp and a speech impediment? “Steffani” has to top the list. The only time my former speech-impeded self rears its head is when I introduce myself. There are people who honestly think my name is Shteffani.
Experts’ll tell you, though, that when one sense is compromised, the others are heightened, and maybe it’s for that reason that I became so visually observant and able to read people’s demeanour, the most important traits for a writer.
Still, there’s a dark side to hearing loss and I’m sure it accounts for insecurities and frustrations I can’t ignore at times like these. My current hearing aids are seven years old and I cannot tell you how much they’re complicating my life right now. Hearing aids are obsolete after five years. I know some people get huffy and angry about that, like companies are just trying to hoodwink us every half-decade, but that’s simply untrue. Look at your cell phones. Remember what they were like five years ago?
Seven years ago, I was using an iPhone 3G. If I compare it to my iPhone 6, it’s light-years apart. That’s the same situation with my current hearing aids. I have loved having Phonak hearing aids. They were made so reliably that I’ve never had them repaired even once. Seven years! Not one repair! I’ve never gone more than two years without repairs with other brands I’ve used. That no-repair-thing is blessing and a curse. I don’t know how ill-functioning my hearing aids are today, but I know I’m missing out on much more than just a few conversations. I’ve never had them re-calibrated either, and hearing tests reveal that I’ve lost some range in each ear, so even my settings are now obsolete.
The loss of clarity and volume are also making it terrible for me in dealing with others. I miss so much of what people are saying to me. Like most hearing-impaired people, I get frustrated with asking folks to repeat themselves, so eventually I get to the point where I just nod and agree, completely ignorant to what’s been said to me. Sadly, people misconstrue not being able to hear them with not listening, and those are worlds apart.
That’s a big problem for me as a traveler. I’m alone a lot in this new life and when I meet people, I have very little time to get to know them or make an impression, and those moments matter to me more now, and what I “miss” is a greater disappointment than ever. I don’t lament travelling alone in the world, but I long for my connections to be more clear and meaningful.
But in mere weeks, this problem will be a thing of the past. I plan on getting new hearing aids, and I expect it to be a life-changing situation. Sure, it’s a phrase we bandy about often, “life-changing,” but I mean it very literally. I’ll have minimum 15% more hearing range, probably over 20%. I’ll have my sound profile re-calibrated for how I hear today, not how I heard 7 years ago. I’ll hear new frequencies for the first time, because that’s been true with every new pair. I’ll have more clarity than I’ve had in years too.
How will that translate as I meet people abroad? What will I learn from them? How much safer will I feel walking in streets at night in strange lands when I can hear footfalls behind me? What delights will I experience in new regions when birds are singing, people laughing, and life unfolds all around me? How much clarity will I have as old merchants smile and try to teach me their words?
I am not my hearing loss. I am not my travels. I am not my job. But all of these things conspire to help shape who I am on a daily basis. I’m an observant writer who’s in love with how people express themselves. I’m in love with culture and differences between us. I feel grateful when I hear the swishing of wind in the leaves or the patter of rain on a skylight or the thundering rumble of a storm building over these high Mexican mountains.
I am not my hearing loss. I am not my travels. I am not my job.
As I go forward travelling with hearing loss, I plan on sharing some of my adventures with you, and my hope is that I’ll help inspire you to realize that nothing prevents us from our dreams unless we let it. I had a quote on my desk for years that said “It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not.” If there’s anything I would like to see people take away from my story it’s that I once thought I was a victim trapped in a life of adversity, but today I’m an inspiration travelling the world and living my dreams. The only thing that happened in between those two versions of myself was me making the decision to go big, go bold, and to not let anything hold me back, not anymore.
Is there anything you’ve been waiting to try, like I did by traveling with hearing loss? What could you decided to go bold and just do?