Unmasking Our Hearing Loss

By Laura Bratton
Voices in order of appearance:
Laura Bratton/LB: Host
Sara R: 25-year-old high school English teacher with hearing loss, also Laura’s friend
Dr. Jona Haberman/JH: Laura Bratton’s audiologist, an expert on how visual cues impact hearing
Jo: Barista at Colina Cuervo
Kevin: Barista at Colina Cuervo

Laura Bratton [narration]: I met Sara in a twelve-step meeting when I first moved to Brooklyn last year. I noticed her from across the room. I liked her style. And she was wearing hot pink hearing aids.

[Music up.]

LB [narration]: When I saw her, I remembered picking out my first pair of hearing aids when I was four years old. Brittany Spears was my idol.

[Laura singing to herself.]

LB [narration]: So I asked my mom if I could get bright pink ear molds. Like the kind I imagined Brittany wore as ear pieces on stage.

[Laura continues singing to herself.]

LB [narration]: She said no.

[Music stops.]

LB [narration]: I was stuck with a nude color that matched my skin tone—the color I still have today.

Sara came up to me with her friend Alix after the meeting and said hello.

Sara [interview]: I mean, you were just brand new to the city and you were being real good about it.
LB [narration]: I was nervous. I hadn’t made many friends, and I especially needed to make more young sober friends.

Sara [interview]: You were like, hello, I need friends. Which is what I also have done.

LB [narration]: Sara was 25, 5 years sober, an Aquarius, and she’d also worn hearing aids since she was a kid. A match made in heaven.

LB [interview]: You were like my first friend my age who wears hearing aids.

Sara [interview]: Same. I think I’ve maybe met one or two other people, um but I have no other friends with hearing loss. It’s something that I’ve always kind of thought about. But yeah you were probably one of the first people that I’ve actually, like befriended, who has a hearing loss that I’ve also met in the recovery communities and yeah, in general.

LB [narration]: Growing up I tried not to think about how my disability impacted me. I just wanted to be normal. I knew I had to ask my friends to repeat themselves a lot, and sometimes I pretend I know what people are saying when I don’t. I accidentally laugh when someone says something serious, or nod seriously when someone tells a joke. It’s awkward, but it’s not awful.

Sara [interview]: Because I think people use the like “What’d you say? Or like what?” as a joke sometimes. Or like, “wait, what” as a sort of surprise remark. Versus “Can you repeat that?” Um, so I think sometimes people miss it too, when I say that, they’re like, haha yeah.

Sara [interview]: And I’m like, no, no, no. Like I literally couldn’t hear you. Can you please tell me that again? So that’s also been something I have to practice and like work on kind of removing the embarrassment and shame around, because I kinda need to know what’s going on.

LB [narration]: But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

[Archival tape of TV news clips plays.]

ABC News Anchor [archival]: The world health organization today declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.

Global News Anchor [archival]: The coronavirus is a pandemic.
Andrew Cuomo [archival]: All people in public must have a mouth and nose covering.

Sara [interview]: I really rely on lip reading and obviously that option is taken away. Um, and there are masks that have like the little clear section, but they fog up like, they’re just not that great. So it’s definitely been hard. Um, And I think it impacted my ability to confidently communicate with people, because I feel like I have to ask for people to repeat themselves so much.

LB [narration]: Masks took away a lot of the visual cues Sara and I rely on to understand what people are saying.

Dr. Jona Haberman [interview]: People will joke. “I need my glasses to hear,” but it’s true.

LB [narration]: Dr. Jona Haberman is an audiologist at Northwell Health. She works in midtown Manhattan, and I started seeing her this year. The first time I saw her as a patient, she broke down my hearing loss in decibels.

LB [narration]: With hearing aids, I hear at -3.5 decibels. Which sounds like this.

LB [narration]: Can you hear me? (spoken at -3.5 decibels)

LB [narration]: Without hearing aids, I hear at -13 decibels.

LB [narration]: Can you hear me? (spoken at -13 decibels)

LB [narration]: I asked Dr. Haberman to explain how the pandemic and mask-wearing made it so hard to communicate.

JH [interview]: So even in our development of language, the visual input is absolutely necessary.

JH [interview]: Now, there are ways to work on this. You could do auditory training to be able to train the brain to understand more clearly, even without visual input, but no one had a chance to do that in the pandemic.

[Music up.]

JH [interview]: So people with hearing loss kind of just had, you know, their crutch taken away from them.

[Music up and out.]

[New Scene – Grocery Store]

[Grocery store sounds]

Sara [scene]: Okay, let’s see. We need chicken. We have carrots. I need green beans. I have butter. I need an onion.

LB [narration]: I went to the grocery store with Sara one Sunday before our weekly 12-step meeting. We met at about 9:30 at her apartment building in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and the Jewish market she shops at is just around the corner.

Sara [scene]: I feel like all my chaotic energy comes out at the grocery store. Because I just don’t think about it at all. I just — oh, look at these tiny kumquats. How do you say that?

LB [scene]: I don’t know.

Sara [scene]: Look how small they are. I’m going to buy one.

LB [narration]: We’re some of the only people wearing masks in the grocery store. We move through the aisles in slow steady zig zags as different items catch Sara’s eye.

Sara [scene]: I really like going to the Jewish grocery store. Cause they have like everything Jewish and gluten-free. For example, maybe they don’t have it this week, but they have a gluten-free hallah.

LB [narration]: We move to the checkout line, where two unmasked cashiers are chatting.

Cashier [scene]: You want me to put it in a bag?

Sara [scene]: Yeah. Can you put it? Uh, we can hold them. I’ll hold it. Oh yeah, that’s perfect.

[Beeping, cashier check-out sounds]

Sara [scene]:Thank you.

[New Scene – Walk Back To Sarah’s Apartment]

LB [narration]: We leave the store and remove our masks. The wind’s blowing hard while we walk back to her apartment.

Sara [scene]: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s interesting living in an area where like, people don’t wear masks because. Uh, that’s part of like the culture, like they’re not people or Orthodox Jewish do not wear masks and that’s totally okay. Like totally up to them. I don’t know if I think it’s okay, but I’m trying to respect everyone’s different, uh, lifestyles and, um, go, I don’t know. It’s interesting. I moved here.

[Wind picks up.]

Sara [scene]: I started shopping at the grocery store pretty recently in times where I felt like a little bit more relaxed about COVID. So I do think it feels less stressful to me, but it also feels weird. Like, I don’t really exist in communities right now where people aren’t wearing masks on a regular basis, but it also, it does make it easier to communicate. So it’s hard. Like-

LB [scene]: Yeah.

Sara [scene]: It’s hard when the option, is like, can I hear or do we all stay safe?

[Music up and out]

LB [narration]: We drop off her groceries and drive to her favorite coffee shop, Colina Cuervo on Nostrand in Crown Heights.

[New Scene – Colina Cuervo Coffee Shop]

[Coffee shop sounds.]

Sara [scene]: Oh, it smells good in here.

LB [narration]: It’s loud. Music is playing and people cram around small tables in the dining area. The barista’s are all masked. It’s pretty hard to hear.

Sara [scene]: Hi, can I have a maple latte with oat milk, please?

Barista [scene]: Sure. Am I ready for my interview?

[Sara laughs.]

LB [narration]: For Sara, the choice to wear a mask is easy.

Sara [interview]: I don’t feel like I’ve ever been like, oh, we should lift mask mandates so that I can hear better.

LB [narration]: After Sara and I get coffees, we rush to our 12-step recovery meeting, which, ironically, is at The School For the Deaf in Crown Heights.

Because these meetings are anonymous, I don’t record. Sara and I sit in the front row so we can hear the speaker, and I was surprised to see that we’re the only people wearing masks in a room of about 50 people.

Sara [interview]: Like in recovery meetings, when we voted on keeping the mask mandate or not, um, most people vote against.

Sara [interview]: They’re like get rid of it. I’ve always voted to keep it because it’s keeping us safe. Like it keeps the immunocompromised person safe. It keeps the person who might not feel safe, coming to a certain space without a mask safe and feeling included. And so like, yes, I’ve missed a lot, but ultimately like, I think like mitigating—you know, starting to like you know starting to like lessen this and continuing to minimize the spread is way more important than me being able to hear.
[Music up and out.]

LB: I went back to Colina Cuervo, the coffee shop, later that week to ask the baristas what it’s like on their side of the counter.

Jo [interview]: So the most common like mis-hearing I have is oat milk can whole milk. So we’ll have to differentiate between cow milk and non-dairy milk and I will have to clarify using very enunciated speech. And um like, “Would you like cow’s milk or oat milk?”

LB: Jo’s worked at the cafe for about 6 months. Masks make their job more awkward, but like Sara, they’re not ready to stop wearing them.

Jo [interview]: I would like everyone to stay masked right now especially because there’s a big upsurge and no one really seems to be paying attention to it anymore and everyone’s demasking.

Jo [interview]: It like–Honestly, it’s a feeling of helplessness. Like I don’t have a choice, but to work, I need to have a job that pays me money, but I’m putting myself at risk every day by like being face to face with people who are unmasked, dealing with their dirty dishes, their dirty cups, cleaning up after them.

Jo [interview]: It puts me at risk. And when you don’t have like good benefits to help support you, it’s like you feel like the butt end of the system.

LB [narration]: Kevin, another barista at Colina Cuervo, feels differently.

Kevin [interview]: It just becomes really, really, really hard to hear, really hard to hear. And especially with the masks, it just adds like another layer of communication.

Kevin [interview]: Uh, and, uh the level of comfort, obviously it’s protection, but I-I’m, I’m kind of ready to like leave the masks.

LB [narration]: I understand what Kevin’s saying — I’m tired of wearing masks. As a graduate school student, I miss what’s being said in class all the time.

But Dr. Jona Haberman says there are simple ways to fix this issue. She talks about schools, in particular, since Sara is a teacher, and I’m a student.

JH [interview]: What I would hope is that, um, the institutions can support mask-wearing for those who choose to do it by providing other sort of supports for those with hearing loss and for students overall, you know, classrooms should be set up with speakers in the back and some kind of communication method between the teacher and a large classroom with 35 students.

JH [interview]: So, uh, teachers, for example, should be bringing microphones or lecturers should be wearing microphones when they’re wearing face shields. And then that source—the microphone—will send a signal either into speakers into the whole classroom or directly through an FM system, into the people in the room who wear cochlear implants or hearing aids.

LB [narration]: Unfortunately, this isn’t how it typically works out in reality.

LB [narration]: Sara asked her school for an FM system at the start of the pandemic, but with only one microphone to pass between her students, it got too hectic.

Sara [interview]: Especially like when we first went back to school, it was. It didn’t feel safe to like ask kids to pass it around. And now it just feels like I’ve kind of adapted to the, like running around the classroom or like asking students to speak louder which I think is good practice for them. Right, like, if I can’t hear them, that means that probably someone else can’t hear the students.

LB [narration]: But Dr. Haberman has hopes that we can do better as a society.

JH [interview]: The easiest way to address it puts the onus or puts the responsibility on the person who’s hard of hearing to advocate for themselves.

JH [interview]: And I wish as a society, we had better communication skills overall, but unfortunately, we don’t. It’s not commonplace in our society to kind of be that way.

JH [interview]: So I would say, you know, I personally still support mask-wearing. But I would wish that also institutions could support better listening environments with more resources.

JH [interview]: I think establishing protocols across the board. Meaning so that certain teachers don’t say, “Oh, I can hear you. It’s fine. You don’t need to use microphones,” but every large classroom or lecture hall setting should have at least two to three microphones in the room to be able to communicate.

LB [narration]: I am excited by even the idea of achieving this kind of norm, where there’s no choice between masks and hearing—we can do both because we have the proper systems in place. Until then, Sara and I will have to make small but significant sacrifices for the greater good.

Sara [interview]: I do trust that this will end, and at some point, people will be able to be in the world again without masks safely, and so I would rather focus on that and miss a few things now.

[Music up and out.]

Music (CCBYNC license):
“Cran Ras” by Blue Dot Sessions
“Beignet Interlude” by Blue Dot Sessions
“I Keep Going” by Blue Dot Sessions

Sara R: ‭+1 (914) 589-6264‬
Dr. Jona Haberman: