This pandemic is making me lose my job.

There’s a lesson we are to learn right now, and that’s to self-advocate.

Dear Lisnen,

Ever since COVID-19 came, it has been ruining my life. I started a new job early this year, and at work, all my coworkers wear face masks, but with the background noises and the muffled sounds coming from their mouths, I’m missing stuff being said. I’m really nervous when we have meetings, and I feel like I’m losing connections with my coworkers because I just keep to myself. I’m nervous that I won’t be able to do my job well. My boss will think I’m not engaging, not following instructions, and using it as an excuse to get rid of me. What should I do? WorkAlone

Dear WorkAlone,

I can understand the high anxiety level you are experiencing. You dread having to wake up and face the uncertain day ahead. Not knowing if this will be a good day, or when the clock turns to 10 am, you are already wishing to be back home. This is what COVID-19 has brought to us all with hearing loss. It has taken every skill that we taught ourselves to adapt to our hearing loss and threw it out the window. It was hard enough communicating without the mask, but now COVID-19 is making us start all over again.

It’s not an easy time for you. It’s not an easy time for all of us. It feels like just overnight, we were just thrown into a deep well, all alone in the dark, and someone silently told us that we have to figure it out. It’s hard to figure it out. COVID has brought us a lot of crap, and now our own livelihood is coming to play. 

I think COVID-19 is reminding us how vulnerable we are. How much we are human. How much we desire to connect with other species. We are not meant to be the independent-type, the I-can-get-stuff-done-on-my-own type. We are designed to live on this planet with other beings. 

Sometimes, I get mad that we are often neglected by society, or at least that is what it feels like. Sometimes I wish every human body had at least some level of empathy. That ability to empathize will be what will bond us together even more. I get mad because when I look at face masks, I see such a lazy invention. Look how this mask has become the default for our society. Whoever thought of designing a face mask did not even consider the many more problems it created. 

You may disagree with me that face masks prevent the spread of the virus, which should exceed all other possible complaints. But in my mind, there’s a better way. Face masks, at least the disposable ones, have caused more pollution and ruining our natural resources. They only come in one size as if everyone’s head is the same size. It disguises our identity and is ineffective for security and identification. Do you know how many times people have actually thought I was someone else? It doesn’t allow us to understand the facial expression. Also, 93% of our communication doesn’t come from the words we say but through our body expressions and tone. And masks cause people to sound muffled. Even people with hearing can’t always hear what is being heard. Face masks could be designed better. There should be an effort to make an effective anti-fog, clear, virus-blocking face mask.

So what should one do? What is the hope that we have until the vaccination arrives at our doctor’s office when we can finally remove the face mask? We shouldn’t have to suffer until then. We shouldn’t have to worry on top of all the other worries and anxieties that this pandemic has brought up. I believe that this period is a test. COVID-19 has taught us that we need each other more. We have lived our lives through so many distractions and avoidance, but now it is harder to hide. COVID-19 is testing you on your ability to self-advocate for yourself. Self-advocate means that you are worthy of being a member of our society. You have the right to know what other people are saying. Your desires should be articulated and expressed to others. That’s the test that COVID-19 is bringing to us. Can we be authentic in our interactions with others? Can we let people know when we can’t hear and keep asking until we finally understand? We deserve to get to know what is said.

WorkAlone, have you raised your concerns and let the people in your office know that the masks are making it difficult for you to understand what they say? You can say something like this or in your own way of speaking, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I am not getting any of the words that you are saying. I’m much better at lipreading to help get all that you said. I really want to understand what you are saying.”

This conversation can typically go two ways. One way is that your office workers or boss might respond with an effort to improve their communication. They might yell louder, or they might remove their mask for you to lipread. Neither is ideal, but at least they are trying. The other way is that they dismiss you as this is your problem to fix. I hope this is not the case. You deserve to be surrounded by people who are empathetic to your needs.

I can’t say how others would respond, but the most essential thing that needs to be done is self-advocating. Anything else is a bonus. How they respond is up to them. How your boss or coworkers react to you can hurt, but don’t let that stop you. You can only do what you can control and what’s important to you. So, self-advocate. Show the self-love that your mind and soul yearns during this time. Do not hide from your needs.

People often don’t think about anyone but themselves. They can’t see past their own perception. This makes it harder for others to naturally understand the challenges we are going through. They can’t read our mind and respond the way we expect them. When we develop relationships with people. Whether it’s an employee relationship, parent-child relationship, or any other relationship, we need to ensure that we relate. Sharing and articulating our needs for them to better understand us and for us to understand them better. It’s a two-way street. 

Don’t stop interacting with people who you like and admire. If they are respectful, they will do anything to help make it easier for you to join the conversation or have a conversation with them.

Realize that if you are coping by avoiding the situation, no one wins. Your boss doesn’t benefit from your presence and all your capabilities, the reason they hired you in the first place. Avoidance makes it easy for us to deal with our hearing problems. We think that others benefit from us not being around like our existence is a burden that others do not want to experience. Avoidance hurts us all. It hurts you because you suddenly exclude yourself from just being you. You are a social being that was put onto the planet to engage, interact, and fulfill. You are not a burden when you ask them to repeat. Again and again. If people get frustrated, remember it is their problem. Let people know who you are and needs as a person with hearing loss. You deserve to know and to connect, but you are not seen when you are avoiding. You don’t deserve to be down in that well. 

We are lucky to have the technology to help make it easier for us. Take advantage of the tools and speak-to-text apps, like Ava, Live transcribe, or Otter.ai, to help you fill in the listening gap while conversing with others. Remember the environments or situations where you could hear well and engage with others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reenact them again where and when you can. Provide suggestions to others on ways that you can listen to them better. Is it outdoors, where you can talk at a distance without the masks on? Could one of the staff members remove their mask when talking to you while everyone else has them on? Could you connect with people after work on video calls to build relationships after work? Use those small moments when you are not working to connect with your coworkers.

I know this is going to be hard for many people to do. It comes with lots of practice. It comes with understanding your worth, your importance in the space, and knowing that you do not have to settle for anything and be alone because you don’t fit in. With practice and continuous effort to be authentic in these moments, you can come out stronger. If anything or any experience we can get out of this pandemic is that COVID-19 will teach us more resilience, persistence, and kinder to ourselves.

If you have any questions to help navigate life with hearing loss, and you would like my advice and as a friend, send me an email at asklisnen@lisnen.com.

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