“What are ya gonna do…?!”
As someone with life-long hearing impairment, who tires of saying “what?” or “say again?” I have discovered that the above sentence, with the right inflection, can answer any question or statement that I didn’t quite catch. Try it! How’s the weather? Having a good day? Do anything fun over the weekend? Etc., etc., etc.
My secret is out.
And having a hearing impairment can be a secret that you don’t want to share, but can be hard to hide. Wearing hearing aids of course are a dead giveaway, but the ones I wear are discreet, and only those with eagle eyes can spot them, and almost instinctively when they do, people start talking in a louder voice.
My eyes are sharp, overcompensating I suppose for my dismal hearing. Thus, while watching the terrifically clever new Netflix series Never Have I Ever, I spotted hearing aids on the character of Jonah, played vividly and wonderfully by out actor Dino Petrera. I couldn’t get in touch with him fast enough and talk to him about our shared hearing challenge.
Meetings and large groups can be difficult for me to hear. Forget about trying to understand my friends talking in a loud bar or party. However, for an actor, having a hearing impairment, to me, seemed like an incredible challenge since acting is really about listening and reacting to your scene partners. I wondered if Dino felt the same way or if he tried to hide, like I often do, the fact that he’s hearing challenged?
“While shooting Never Have I Ever… I was so excited to be in my first scene with the girls in the classroom,” Dino remembered. “One of the moments in that scene required an over the shoulder shot of me, so before the camera rolled, I asked the production team if they wanted me to remove my hearing aids, and they conferred for a moment, and told me to keep them in, and that’s when I knew I was really part of this special ensemble.”
That cast includes three POC women as the leads, and for Dino that was really the exciting part of the story, which is why he asked about his hearing aids. “I always check with the crew before shooting because I don’t want the hearing aids to distract from the story,” he pointed out. “I don’t try to hide them, but I just want to make sure that I’m respectful of the project.” To Dino, having hearing aids shouldn’t be a question, since people who have them “…are all around us, and just give the character another distinguishing trait.”
Dino grew up in upstate New York, the youngest of four, with his sister preceding him also hearing challenged. Thus, his parents were able to recognize when Dino was unresponsive as an infant. At the time the doctors diagnosed his hearing loss as moderate to severe and they explained to his parents that he would most likely never speak coherently. When you watch his portrayal of Jonah, you will come to understand that Dino completely busted through that obstacle.
“My mom took it upon herself to read to me and include me in conversations and just treated me as a normal child, allowing me to develop in a loud Italian household,” Dino joked. “Then she enrolled me in a local community theater Shakespeare production when I was around 10 years old. That’s when I first learned to connect with people emotionally.”
When you’re hearing impaired, you don’t connect with people in the standard sense through clearly spoken words. You rely on lots of tricks such as reading lips, translating reactions and the context of dialogue, or relying on someone else to hear for you. For Dino, having the words on the page, and dropped into a theme, provided a more easily understood way of expressing himself and connecting to others. It also gave him a passion for storytelling.
“I was a good student, so the expectation from my family was that I would probably be a doctor or lawyer, but I went with acting since I now had the ability to emotionally connect with words that were already written,” he said. “When I was a senior in high school, the teacher directing took a chance and cast me as the Nathan Lane character in Guys and Dolls and that ignited the idea for me to go full force into acting.”
Nathan Lane was a hero to Dino since he not only admired the actor’s tremendous talent but also the fact that he was out and proud. “Seeing him work helped me to become more positive as a gay person and actor and helped liberate me from what I perceived as my weaknesses, the fact that I was hearing impaired and gay.”
As a result, Dino came out to his friends and family in his last year of high school and first year of college. “One of the great joys of playing Jonah has been to see all of the social media comments from fans of the show who say everybody should have a friend like Jonah,” observed Dino. “It also has made me realize that I should have come out earlier in my life rather than try and deal with my self-imposed shame, namely because I thought my family would not accept me, and that turned out not be the case at all.”
“I really hope that Jonah coming out on the show as a gay teen can help younger people who are struggling with being gay to come out and be proud of who they are,” Dino said. “Hopefully, Jonah inspires gay teens to lean into it and helps those who are not gay have emotional insight into other people’s circumstances.”
Dino’s own situation is truly an inspiration and a testament to overcoming the odds. It’s rare to find someone so young who understands life’s obstacles and the impediments of trying to hear in a world that, for us, isn’t so loud. Dino and I shared stories about how we manage to “hear” when we aren’t hearing at all and spoke about the ways we lean on others to hear for us, and zero in on people’s lips while they’re talking.
There was a time in my life that I not only wished that I wasn't gay, but that I could also hear well. Now, I'm happy with who I am, and wouldn't change either aspect. I asked Dino if he ever wished he could hear normally?
"Today, I wouldn’t even waste a genie’s wish on perfect hearing," he quickly replied. "Why would I give up having a built-in mute button for nay-sayers, noisy neighbors and baseless propaganda. In this era of information overload, it’s like we have a superpower that enables us to focus more on the people saying something that is actually worth listening to."
And, then as we wound up our conversation, Dino brought me down when I asked him what he’s doing through the pandemic? “I started to write something about a deaf person struggling with the new reality of face masks and how a world like that would make reading lips and gauging smiles and facial expressions almost impossible.”
That’s when I suddenly realized that through all my writing and teaching about the new normal, I completely missed how that would affect my hearing. The new hindrance to hearing being a face mask.
Dino and I vowed to wear masks and to figure out a way to “make it work.” I shared with Dino my stock reply when I don’t hear a comment or a question, and we had good laugh about it.
So be advised, if you run into Dino and ask him for a selfie, or how he's doing behind your mask, and he answers, “What are ya gonna do,” just remember you heard it here first.
John Casey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.