The Day I Got My Hearing Aids, The KU Marching Band Followed Me Home!

by Tina Blue
November 5, 2000

          People with normal hearing have a hard time understanding the nature of hearing loss. They don't understand how a person who can hear some things just fine nevertheless can't understand a word another person is saying, or maybe can't hear a phone ring or a knock at the door.

          There are degrees of hearing loss, and many people with a severe loss in certain frequency ranges may have only a moderate or mild loss, or perhaps no loss at all, in other frequency ranges. Thus, they may hear some things as well as a person with normal hearing, while being completely unable to hear other things at all.

      Furthermore, the degree of loss in one ear may be far greater than in the other, so that sounds coming from the side of the "good" ear may be heard, but when a similar sound comes from the side of the "bad" ear, the person may be totally unaware that any sound has been made at all. For example, I can't hear a phone ringing even if I am only a few feet away from it, if my left ear is turned toward it, but I can hear it fine from several feet away if my right ear is turned toward it. (I still can't hear it from another room, though, even if the ringer is turned up to full volume.)

          I suspect such uneven impairment is one reason why many of us with significant hearing loss annoy other people so much that they say things like, "I don't really think you're as deaf as you pretend to be. In fact, I think you hear exactly what you want to hear!" (Of course, it also annoys them to have to slow down a bit and think about someone else's needs for a moment, too. Consideration is not a character trait that is valued or encouraged in our society.)

          Unfortunately, one of the most common kinds of hearing loss involves high frequency sounds. These are the very sounds that enable us to distinguish between consonants in speech. Thus, a person with only a partial hearing loss may be severely impaired when it comes to understanding spoken words, even if he can hear most other sounds fairly well.

          I am not one of those people who can hear most other sounds well, though I can hear some sounds better than others. When I was younger, I did have only a mild loss in most frequency ranges, so except for when I was trying to understand speech, I did not seem hearing-impaired at all.

      But my condition is caused by Meniere's disease, so my hearing loss is progressive, and as time passes I grow deafer in all frequency ranges. My loss is profound in most ranges in my left ear, and moderate in the remaining ranges. In my right ear, my loss is moderate in most ranges, but profound in a couple.

      Put simply, I have a very significant hearing impairment in both ears, but it is far worse in one ear than in the other. The fact that I can hear some sounds if my good ear is turned toward them just confuses people and makes it harder for them to adjust to the fact that they have to help me understand what they are saying.

          Besides the fact that people may get the idea that you hear better than you do if they see you responding to sounds within your range of hearing on the side of your good ear, another problem with having one ear that works somewhat better than the other is that you have no way to figure out what direction a sound is coming from.

     That is a problem I encounter every day. Even when I hear someone begin to speak, it takes me a moment or two to figure out where the person's voice is coming from, so I lose the first part of what he is saying, because I can't read his lips until I am facing him. Without my hearing aids, I only have about 10% comprehension of speech; with them I have about 50% comprehension. I still must read lips, even when I have my hearing aids in.

          Speaking of hearing aids--I don't know what I would do without mine, but they are certainly not a cure-all for deafness.   My favorite line about hearing aids is this:  My hearing aids help me hear about as well as your grandmother's walker helps her run. 

      Hearing aids actually do some weird things with sounds. When I am in a restaurant, I may be able to hear the conversation four tables away as if it were being spoken directly into my ear, but still be unable to make out the words of the person sitting across the table from me. I can't bear to wear hearing aids when walking to and from class, because I pick up bits of conversations from ten yards away, and think that someone has come up behind me and is saying something to me. Before I figured out that I couldn't wear my aids out in the wide world, I was constantly turning to respond to someone that wasn't even there.

          When I first got my hearing aids (in 1994), I was walking home from the hearing clinic on campus, when suddenly the KU marching band started following me home!

      I turned to see them--but they weren't there. I started walking again, and they started following me again!

     Obviously the KU marching band was not actually behind me--they were practicing in an athletic field about ten blocks away. But every time they started playing again, I looked over my shoulder, even though I had already figured out where they really were, and that my hearing aids were playing tricks on me. It sure sounded like they were following me home, and I just couldn't stop checking, even though I knew better.

          People with normal hearing need to be more cooperative about helping those of us with a hearing impairment. But what usually happens is that after a number of unpleasant encounters with rude and impatient interlocutors, a person with a hearing loss just withdraws into himself and gives up on trying to engage in social interactions.

      I don't think we should do that, though. I think we should do our very best to understand what is being said, but also that we shouldn't let hearing folks off the hook when they want to snap at us for being hard of hearing. If more of us insisted on being treated with a reasonable amount of respect during conversations or in other social situations, then other people might get into the habit of responding well rather than badly to our requests for help.

          A lot of deaf people don't want to call attention to themselves by saying in a group, "Could you please try not to drop your voice at the ends of your sentences?" or "I am hard of hearing, so could you please face in my direction when you speak?"

      But deafness should not be a cause of embarrassment--though rudeness and impatience certainly should. If a deaf person asks politely for reasonable accommodation to his handicap, and the other person responds rudely, it is not the deaf person who should feel bad about it.

          In fact, when I get an ugly response, or when someone simply will not make any effort at all to help me, I say, "If I were blind, you would not stick your leg out to trip me, would you? Well, deafness is as much a handicap as blindness, and it is not my fault that I suffer from this handicap, any more than it is a blind person's fault that he cannot see."

          This usually produces a much better attitude, especially in a group situation, where the rude person has to deal with other people's perception of him as one who treats people contemptuously because of their handicaps.
          I will not go and hide in a room just so other people don't have to speak clearly or take the trouble to face me when they talk. With all the loud music my generation and the current crop of young people have listened to, partial hearing loss, even among the relatively young, is going to become more and more common.

     I think I am performing a public service by teaching people to treat the hearing-impaired with respect and consideration. Who knows--one day the very person I correct may have to deal with a hearing loss of his own. When that happens, he may be grateful for my efforts to educate the public about dealing kindly with those who cannot hear.
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