When people try to capture Veronica Davila’s attention from a distance at a grocery store, parking lot or any other venue, some believe she’s just ignoring them.
If that person comes within six feet of her, Davila’s service dog, a giant schnauzer named Sammie, either barks boisterously or rubs her leg to alert her that she may have company.
Davila of Oxon Hill stands among 48 million Americans who appear normal visually, but suffer from hearing loss, an invisible disability incorporated as part of the American Disability Act, which became law on July 26, 1990.
To inspire others, the 52-year-old hairstylist who went completely deaf in her left ear in September 2012 founded the Prince George’s County chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America. It’s one of only four chapters in Maryland organized to educate people and to change the stigmas against individuals with hearing loss in society.
“I was very tight-knit with the circles [of people] that I told because for me it was a safety issue,” said Davila, who also lost 70 percent of the hearing in her right hear less than two years after going deaf in the left one. “After I got comfortable, I just felt people have to know about this. It’s an educational process.”
To bridge the communication gap with the hearing world, Davila, who lost her hearing after two vertigo attacks, has a cochlear hearing device implanted behind her left ear and a hearing aid in the right ear.
Davila praises her dog Sammie for reinvigorating her independence to participate in citizen advisory meetings with the police department, Democratic Central Committee sessions and other community outings.
“[I was] still a few years away from 50 years old [when hearing loss began], so having a hearing loss doesn’t happen because of old age,” she said as Sammie calmly sat beside her inside a Wegman’s in Lanham. “This is a very technical issue. We want to keep it as simple as possible for people to understand, but more work needs to be done.”
Those in the hearing loss community admit the topic can be quite extensive, complicated and complex.
In terms of the black community, studies show hearing loss ranks lower than whites. According to one study led by Frank Lin, an associate professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, analyzed that skin color based on increased melanin decreases hearing loss.
Lin and his research team released a study in 2013 that showed nearly 2,000 adults analyzed between ages 75 and 84 who had a hearing loss had their cognitive abilities decline by at least 30 percent faster than those who hear. On average, their mental capacity would decrease at least three years sooner than those with normal hearing, according to the study summary.
The national Hearing Loss Association of America headquartered in neighboring Montgomery County in Bethesda provides communication tips for those in the hearing world at www.hearingloss.org/content/living-hearing-loss. Some of the advice:
• Face person directly;
• Don’t shout;
• Give clues when changing subjects, or say “new subject;” and
• Maintain a sense of humor with a positive attitude.
Most importantly, the organization suggests persons with hearing loss avoid isolation and seek help with a family member, a friend or someone they trust.
“Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. If they struggle, that’s OK. Sometimes they have to struggle to realize they are having difficulty [hearing],” said Larry Medwetsky, an associate professor of audiology at Gallaudet University, which serves deaf and hard of hearing students in Northwest. “A family has to be very supportive, but try to help them move forward.”
Medwetsky, who chairs the school’s Hearing, Speech and Language Science Department, has wrote several articles and research papers on hearing loss that include the various stages of the disability: mild, moderate, moderately-severe, severe and profound.
According to a 2014 paper from Medwetsky, a variety of tests are given to determine the intensity of a person’s hearing loss. Soft sounds are equivalent to ocean waves and whispers in the mild range. Loud sounds are represented by a truck, lawnmower or an airplane to the most extreme, or profound.
“Having a hearing test is much more complex than an eye exam,” said Medwetsky, 62, who’s diagnosed as profound and has lived with hearing loss since age 3. “For a hearing exam, you must be able to follow the speech and continue the discourse when it doesn’t stop. In reading, you go back and look at what you’ve read. When you listen to someone else talk, you must keep on the fly and if you have difficulty with that you are going to miss the information.”
Although the county’s Hearing Loss chapter meetings have attracted up to 60 people, it only has 10 registered members.
This small group of activists are pushing to work with county officials to provide advanced technology and accommodate those with hearing loss.
For instance, install an audio or hearing loop system wired to a sound system inside the County Council meeting room in the administration building in Upper Marlboro.
When turned on, the loop would connect to a person’s listening device such as hearing aid and cochlear implant to ensure those hard of hearing can become fully engaged public dialogue.
The county currently offers listening devices that people can place around their neck, but requests for the devices must be made at least 48 hours prior to a public meeting.
The Prince George’s group says Wegman’s remains the only business in the county which provides the audio loop at various department in the store.
Lise Hamlin, director of public policy for the national Hearing Loss Association of America in Bethesda, said the loops are installed in meetings room in Montgomery County government and executive buildings. She said the Strathmore theater also provides the technology.
Nationwide, HLAA continues to work on several initiatives that include hospitals, sports bars and other businesses to incorporate closed-captioning on televisions.
However, Hamlin said in an interview a person must request closed-captioning on the TV. If a business doesn’t accommodate a person with hearing loss, it could face a fine.
“I really, truly believe things will get better,” said Hamlin, who was born deaf in one ear and lost hearing in her other ear after an infection. “It takes a while to educate people and get things going.”
Meanwhile, Davila will continue her educational crusade on hearing loss.
She will participate on a panel Tuesday, July 11 at the Department of Labor in Northwest to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the American Disability Act. She’ll discuss living with hearing loss and her work in Prince George’s County.
“I just want people to know you can still live and be productive with hearing loss,” she said. “It can be a challenge, but it can be done.”