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Commentary: Coming Out

Sunita George

Now is a good time to talk about vulnerabilities and how they shape our experiences of the world.  If nothing else, the COVID pandemic has made it acceptable to discuss emotions, even in our work-worlds. We have seen memes of people who show up to Zoom meetings half dressed—traditional professional attire above the waist, and sweatpants-casual below.  We may be ready to embrace this home truth—that we take our full selves to work, vulnerabilities and all.  Perhaps we are ready to come out of hiding, and to illuminate those parts of ourselves we keep hidden for whatever reason. Perhaps the collective trauma, the grief of COVID-19, allows us to wriggle out of our straitjackets, and to tell our stories.

Some decades ago, when I arrived in the U.S as a graduate student, I carried with me the secret that I have acute high-frequency hearing loss in both ears, which makes it hard for me to understand some speech more than others.  Years on, it seems so trivial, but back then I was ashamed of my weakness, my vulnerability.  In partial hearing loss near-perfect hearing in certain frequencies coexists with a muddle of confusion, in others.  Oliver Sacks, the hearing-impaired neurologist called this, “mis-hearing.”  From the confusion of what is heard the mind creatively substitutes plausible words, and this sometimes leads to comical (mis) interpretations.  It is exhausting for me, not just for my interlocutors.   

So, when I made that journey from India to the “New World” all those years ago, denying my deficiencies in hearing, rebelling against wearing hearing aids because the young me did not want to “stand out,” I tried to decipher meaning from context; I read lips—an imperfect coping mechanism even in the best of circumstances, where the eye is forced to convey to the brain what the ear cannot; and I guessed the meaning of unintelligible speech.  As you may imagine, the accents of American voices further muddled my ways of understanding muddled speech.  Some of the responses I gave to questions put to me in conversations surely suggested that I didn’t fully understand English. As a teaching assistant, the end-of-semester student evaluations often had comments like, “This TA doesn’t understand English,” or variations of that sentiment.

I am not sure what prompted me to lay out my vulnerability to the nearly 300 strangers on that first day of class in the large auditorium where we were meeting for an Introductory Human Geography course, in GA.  Perhaps it was the accumulated fear and frustration of being misunderstood; perhaps I realized that my usual coping mechanisms wouldn’t work with so large a class; perhaps I was just tired of faking it.  I found myself saying to the eager young faces, “I have severe hearing loss in both my ears.  If I ask you to repeat your question or comment it is because I cannot hear. I may even come up to you to read your lips.”

Instead of horror I was met with sympathy or, at worst, indifference.  I like to think that my students then realized that they could talk to me honestly about their vulnerabilities too.  Truly, we die a thousand times but only in our imaginations.

At every university at which I have taught since, I begin every course with the same introduction.  After highlighting the university’s policy on the Americans-with-Disabilities-Act, I tell them of my own needs, and ask for their help to accommodate my disability.  There is always a visible interest in the syllabus at this point—some nod, others look fascinated, some smile.  Sometimes I show them my “nude-colored” hearing aids (never mind that it shows like icing on carrot-cake, on my dark skin) which I had fitted at the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, here at WIU.

At this time when many of us are feeling vulnerable on many fronts, speaking about our vulnerabilities can be liberating.  And though there may not be neat lessons to learn from this hard experience, if we dare to be honest we will lighten our load considerably.  We may even come through a little wiser.

As for me, there was a very tangible reward in “coming out.”  Since I stepped out of the shadow of hearing, I have never had teaching evaluations where someone said “The instructor does not understand English!”

Sunita George is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.