“Excuse me?” This is something I’ve said often throughout my life. “What did you say?” “Come again?” “Huh?” “Say it again? I didn’t hear you.” I was so accustomed to saying those phrases that, after a while, I became more than a bit concerned. It’s one thing to say those things as a child, deeply engaged in a fantasy world and then suddenly interrupted by reality. It’s quite another to be present (more or less) and still not be able to hear all that I want. So I went to an audiologist. He returned with this diagnosis:

“You have hearing like a dog.”

“What?” (I heard him. I just didn’t believe him.)

“There’s nothing wrong with your hearing. You hear very, very well.”

“Then why can’t I hear things all the time?”

“I don’t know, but don’t worry. Your hearing is excellent.”

woman doctor using otoscope

Image Source courtesy Getty Images

What could I conclude from such a pronouncement? I decided I was not as present as I thought and that I would make a genuine, concerted effort to rectify the situation. Result? I was unwaveringly attentive, heart-wrenchingly sincere (well, maybe not heart-wrenchingly, but I did try!), and steadfast in my eye contact. Surely, I thought, things would turn around and I could stop asking people to repeat themselves so often.

Guess what? To this day, I ask for as many repetitions as I need. And I need more than most. What gives?

Thankfully, a few years later I had the pleasure of meeting two more audiologists and one occupational therapist who gave me quite a different diagnosis: auditory processing disorder, or APD. It’s a condition that’s expressed in different ways, but essentially, there’s a delay between the auditory nerve and the message it sends to the brain. In my case, the delay is very slight. It’s not that I can’t hear what’s being said; it’s that sometimes I can’t understand it. To me, conversations often just sound like indistinct noise. It’s a slight inconvenience in English, my native tongue, but I have many coping strategies to help me through the day. (I avoid loud restaurants and bars, for instance, because sounds seem like an ocean of indistinguishable noises.) But can you imagine the challenge APD presents while I’m learning Italian?

It would be very easy to lament my plight. “Oh! I have a learning disability! Why me?” I could do that; I love the theatre, so it definitely appeals to my sense of the dramatic. I could, but it wouldn’t serve me. It wouldn’t take me where I want to go. I’m choosing to take my disability and look at it as the carrot before the horse. (Hint: I’m the horse.) I’m using it as a tool to propel me forward. What does that mean? It means I wake up earlier and work harder than if I didn’t have this challenge. Typically, I study early in the morning and review at night. I read, I write, I watch Italian TV. I ask people to repeat themselves. I take my time. It’s all good. I do what I do to get it done. Besides, people expect you to ask for clarification when you’re learning a new language, so in a way, it’s no big deal. But when I say, “Non ho capito. Può ripetere, per favore?” I really mean it!

Sometimes I think about the disabled athletes I see every year in the New York City marathon who do whatever they have to do to cross that finish line. They’re a great inspiration to me. If they can do it with their challenged bodies, I can overcome my own (small, by comparison) disadvantage. My marathon is the journey of learning Italian. I can’t see the finish line from here, but I know it’s there. I’m making my way. Step by step in my own stride. If you look at it that way, is it really such a “disability” after all? Is anything? It just is what it is. I accept the challenge. Oh, yes! I’m cheering myself all the way to the end.

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