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Why there should be more deaf friendly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings

deaf friendly alcoholic anonymous meetings
I needed support from Alcoholics Anonymous back in 2010. When I went to meetings, I could not hear well. I did not have hearing aids nor did I know sign language.

“Keep coming back—it works if you work it!” is an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan. But the truth is, it didn’t work for me due to my hearing loss. I spent years on an isolating healing journey to get sober, and years later it made me wonder: are there other deaf and hard of hearing people going through the same thing out there, and: can there be deaf-friendly alcoholics anonymous meetings?

My Story

In 2010, I walked into my first AA meeting. The room was pretty large and I couldn’t hear what was happening, so I walked out crying. A couple of people came outside to comfort me, but I didn’t stay very long. Two years later, I found myself working in an addiction treatment center. I realized that addicts are not bad people. Many are troubled, in different ways.

I decided to move into a halfway house in another state with hopes to find like-minded people. Unfortunately, I couldn’t relate to anyone; and my mind was so clouded that I wasn’t even aware of what I needed to work through. I was required to go to two AA meetings per week to stay at the halfway house. I often sat in these rooms not knowing what was being said, as I was unable to hear a lot of it, but happy I was at least in a safe space.

In this process, I realized that being around other addicts was not what I needed (as much as a support system could have been beneficial). What I needed was to get to the root issues that were bothering me, which made me pick up addictions to begin with. Like I mentioned above, they say in AA: “It works if you work it,” but it was never quite right for me.

I later realized that the reason it wasn’t right for me is that they were unable to accommodate my needs, which may have been connected to the cause of my addiction in the first place.

Read more: The impact of mild-moderate hearing loss is bigger than you may think

Realizing what I really need

I learned what I was really addicted to was escaping reality. It made me so free and alive. I wasn’t the shy and bashful girl anymore, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. What I’ve come to realize is that recovering addicts need to constantly work on making a life they don’t need to escape from. That is the key to recovering from addiction: to create a life that has meaning, that you can say you are truly proud of.

“What I’ve come to realize is that recovering addicts need to constantly work on making a life they don’t need to escape from.”

A huge step in this process was facing my hearing loss and learning how to advocate for myself in situations where I couldn’t hear. Instead of taking the traditional path of getting support in AA meetings, I took a spiritual path to healing by doing inner work. Even though this path helped me become sober, I was still missing social supports that I could have found had I successfully gone through an AA program.

What I noticed when I sat in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings

The people that speak up tend to be the people that run the meetings. Speaking in meetings tends to be voluntary. Often times, it is the quiet or new people in the rooms that need extra help. When you can’t hear, it is really hard to participate. I had a lot of anxiety from not understanding what was being said. And if you are anything like I was, you may not advocate for yourself. Instead, you just deal with the situation as it is. I have learned that meetings are mostly not friendly to deaf and hard of hearing people.

What helped me improve clarity in meetings

Since I have adjusted to my hearing aids, I have been able to enter rooms and hear a good part of what is being said in meetings. This could have been beneficial to me back in 2010, if I would have been more accepting of my hearing aids then. Since I have been learning American Sign Language (ASL), I have discovered the occasional meeting where a sign language interpreter will be present. This is great if you are fluent in sign language.

Lack of accessibility

I started to wonder, how do other deaf and hard of hearing people get the support they need in meetings? As soon as meetings are over, everyone starts to chitchat. How can one still communicate with others if there is a communication break? Hearing aids help, but with lots of background sound, it can sometimes still be difficult to hear. An ASL interpreter isn’t going to be there later when you need to meet your sponsor for coffee. And a lot of times, deaf and hard of hearing people tend to have deeply rooted issues with being left out in social situations, which could be connected to the cause of the addiction, to begin with.

People in recovery tend to feel a need to be surrounded by others that actually understand their situation to truly heal and thrive. An interpreter gives a Deaf person access, but it certainly does not make things equal in their healing.

This brings me to the question: why aren’t there meetings specifically for deaf and hard of hearing individuals?

The ideal solution for deaf-friendly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings

I feel larger cities would benefit from having deaf and hard of hearing-specific groups. This is something that I envision to grow as we become more educated about how to approach addiction recovery for deaf individuals. I personally feel two kinds of meetings are important:

1) Captioned meetings

Captions can benefit everyone, including hearing aid users and those who should be wearing hearing aids but have not yet accepted them. Even someone who maybe doesn’t have a hearing loss, but is just stuffy or maybe is in a large meeting room may still have challenges in hearing.

It is important to keep confidentiality with captions following a program motto, “What you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here.”

2) ASL specific meetings

Deaf individuals should have access to be around others who communicate in the same language.

There is still a stigma attached to addiction. Although finding like-minded people in your healing journey can be life-changing, many individuals wish to keep their issues private. Because of that, it is important that accessible online meetings and in-person interpreted meetings are both available options. This is also a more realistic setup for individuals in smaller towns where there may not be enough deaf to host an all-deaf meeting.

Coronavirus restrictions 

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting alcohol and drug misuse.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every family across the country and will likely have a long-lasting impact on public health and well-being,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol misuse is already a public health concern in the United States, and alcohol has the potential to further complicate the COVID-19 pandemic in multiple ways.”

The Washington Post reported that drug overdoses have spiked throughout the months of the pandemic.

“Suspected overdoses nationally — not all of them fatal — jumped 18 percent in March compared with last year, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May, according to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program,” The Washington Post says.

While there are treatment centers remaining open during this time, many other in-person recovery supports are less accessible. Due to increased stress from the unknown and isolation from the lockdown, many people are struggling to get the support they need during these times. However, there are many options online.

Where to find support through the pandemic

Telehealth: Many therapists and medical professionals are currently available to do appointments via phone or video sessions. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism will have some resources; however, reaching out to local places in your community could be even more beneficial.

AA/NA meetings: Most meetings have shifted online during the pandemic. To connect with people local to your city, please search for meetings in your area through google (“AA meetings” city name). You can also click on this link here for meetings in the US and Canada. Many pages will have an announcement that they are hosting meetings through Zoom during this time. There are some meetings that have options for ASL Interpreting. I chose to focus on AA meetings in my article, but NA meetings also follow the same format.

Chat rooms: There are local chat rooms, where one can type rather than be on a video chat. Social media pages, like Facebook, have different groups where you can find active people in sobriety who are willing to answer questions.

Reading material, such as The Big Book and the 12 steps, can be helpful resources.

My advice to deaf and hard of hearing once in-person meetings resume

  • Find the right hearing technology that will assist you in being able to understand things better.
  • Find ASL Interpreted meetings you can attend in your city (information can be found online).
  • Smaller meetings make it easier to understand what is being said.
  • Speaker meetings with a microphone can be easier to understand than shared group meetings.
  • Be open about your situation: explain to the group you cannot hear. It is possible they can do something, such as change the seating, to accommodate your needs better.
  • Attend online meetings, as these will continue to be available.
  • There is a Facebook group “Deaf Alcoholic Anonymous Group” for people who communicate in ASL.
  • Start your own group! There are places that hold various support groups already that may be willing to allow you to use their space. Working towards setting up deaf and hard of hearing meetings could be beneficial to your community!
Author Details
I started writing for Hearinglikeme because I needed to share my story, but didn’t have a good outlet, as I felt nobody cared about hearing loss. I did not wear my hearing aids most of my life, but after a buildup of missing hearing things throughout my life, I realized how much easier communication would be if I accepted them. Today, I wear Phonak Sky B-90s. I also communicate in sign language and enjoy being a part of the Deaf world. I was diagnosed hard of hearing in first grade, but spent my entire life trying to act as if it didn’t exist, getting by the best I could. It took me a long time to accept this part of me, which today I am learning to love. I share my stories with advice of what has worked for me. One thing I have learned is what works for me may not work for somebody else. Our DHH communities are diverse and our wishes is something that should be respected and celebrated as it makes each of us safe to be ourselves in our own unique beautiful way.