Please Speak Up--Ouch! Not So Loud!

by Tina Blue
December 17, 2000

          When I first went to the hearing lab to get tested for hearing aids, the audiologist was not at all sure they would be able to help me. You see, my threshold of hearing at that time was at 80 decibels. My threshold of pain and distortion, however, was at 90 decibels. That left a very small window of amplification for them to work with.

          One of the problems deaf people often face is that even though they can't hear beneath a certain volume, they may be very sensitive to sounds at or just slightly above or below that volume, or sounds of a certain pitch. I have both problems.

          The threshold of pain is the volume level at which sound actually becomes physically uncomfortable for an individual. Sounds near the threshold of pain can cause all sorts of stress reactions, including startle responses, wincing, and blood pressure spikes. One reason people with hearing problems often hate to wear their hearing aids is that it raises ambient noise to the point where it approaches their threshold of pain.

          For example, I can't wear my aids while driving, because a sudden loud sound might cause me to swerve in a dangerous way. That means that I have to be very alert for signs that other drivers are pulling over to the side of the road, because I don't know an emergency vehicle is approaching until I can see it in my rearview mirror. I can't hear the siren until the vehicle is already close enough that I can see the flashing lights. Don't worry, though; I watch very carefully!

          The threshold of distortion is the point at which increasing the volume of the spoken word merely distorts the sound rather than clarifying it. At a certain volume, words become incomprehensible because they are too loud rather than because they are too soft. Now, there's a dilemma for a deaf person to deal with!          

          I was very nervous when I first tried my hearing aids. I had dreamed for years of being able to afford them, since teaching was becoming increasingly difficult, and for a long time I had to give up on going to the movies or even talking with anyone who was not a good enough friend to help me understand. But after being told how narrow my amplification window was, and that the hearing aids might not be able to help me, I almost dreaded the day I would finally get them.

          Well, my hearing aids do help. But they don't help as much as I dreamed that they would, and hearing is still a struggle for me. I know that many others do better with their hearing aids than I do, but I also know that many do far worse.

          Now I fantasize about the day when I can afford a set of the new type of hearing aids, the ones with little computers in them. They are supposed to take care of the ambient noise problem and the distortion and discomfort problem.

          I don't think, though, that they come with an Internet connection.
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