What It's Like to Be Hearing Impaired
The life of someone who is hard of hearing is fraught with daily frustration, embarrassment, shock, and comedic moments. As a person who is hard of hearing, I can now see the frustration from both sides of the issue. Being around my father, grandmother and her twin sister, who were all very hard of hearing, I remember being taxed at times having to repeat myself often and to raise my voice. But I was very patient and kind most of the time because I loved them and knew they couldn't help it. It would not be right to stop communicating with someone who has a hearing infirmity. We all have something
I am going to share things that happen in everyday life for a person with hearing difficulties and I will share my own personal experiences.
*Please note the quotes by Helen Keller and Ludwig van Beethoven.
The "What?" Volleyball Game
It isn't so bad to say "What?" a few times during a conversation, but when someone makes a statement and you say "What?" or "Can you repeat that?" and they repeat it, but you have to say "What?" again—maybe even another time—frustration sets in for both the parties. The speaker may have raised their voice for the first time. But the second or third time they do it, there is anger or frustration in their voice. That's embarrassing enough, but when the speaker shouts and says the words verrry slooowly, I feel humiliated. But I understand that is not usually the intention.
I remember visiting my grandmother and her twin sister who were both severely hearing impaired and they lived together. Grandma could afford hearing aids but didn't always wear them, and my great Auntie could not afford them. Auntie spent most of her days in front of the television with the volume on high. Grandma spent her days in the kitchen. When they wanted to talk to one another is was sad, yet comical. Thus the verbal volleyball game began with their "What?" "Speak up." "I can't hear you."
If you are hearing impaired, you're probably nodding, chuckling or both.
Pretending to Hear What Was Said
This happens when speaking with someone I talk to regularly and already know their frustration at having to repeat themselves. So I listen (but don't catch it all) and say "Uh-hu," or "I see," or "Interesting" or "What do you know?" because I don't want to continue to frustrate them by saying "What?" or asking them to repeat themselves over and over.
Depending on the type of relationship I have with the speaker, they might feel comfortable enough to say "You didn't hear me, did you?" Busted. I'm learning that faking it will make things worse, so I'm glad they can tell me.
Not hearing a joke is really a bummer. If I am talking in person with someone and they tell a joke and I miss it they look at me with anticipation of my laugh. I see I am expected to give them a response so I nod and say "uh huh."
"You didn't hear the joke, did you?"
"No, sorry, can you say it again?"
Not only did I miss a chance to enjoy a good laugh, but the speaker is let down and so am I.
Sometimes, I will be talking to someone who is telling me a long story, and I can't understand anything they're saying. When they finish, I try to look at them as if I understood every word. They look at me for an acknowledgment or response, and then the panic sets in for me. This usually happens when there are other people nearby talking. But once in a while, it happens when it's just me and one person. It depends on the severity of hearing loss, the volume of the speaker, and/or the pitch of their voice.
These are not the comedic moments.
Blindness separates us from things but deafness separates us from people."— Helen Keller
Telephones Are a Nightmare
The telephone can be very difficult. This is my greatest challenge. Cellphones are the hardest for me. If someone calls me from a landline, or if I am on a landline, it is much easier. If the speaker is using a Bluetooth or headset it's terribly difficult.
As I only have a cell phone, I have no choice but to use speakerphone exclusively. This presents a problem when I get a call and others are around. I want to respect the caller's privacy, and mine oftentimes. So I have to leave the room or tell the caller I'll get back to them.
Some of the issues with telephone conversations is the pitch of someone's voice. I have four sons. Out of the four, there is only one I can really hear well. It's the pitch of his voice, and he also has a naturally loud voice. Also, I have two sons that mumble. One has a very deep voice.
Talking to business people on the phone is really hard when they are trying to give me lots of information and explanations - tech support is the worst. They are used to talking fast. And some are using headsets. I am learning I have to tell them at the beginning that I am hard of hearing and I need them to speak clearly and louder than usual.
I was telling someone today how much I hate it when I have to speak with a business person who has an accent. It is common today for companies to have tech support people in other countries. A lot of people have trouble with those accents, but when you're hearing impaired it's ten times worse. I literally cannot do it.
If you ask for an American they are at a loss or have to say there are none.
Are you having problems hearing? If so, those around you already know it. Hearing loss is no laughing matter, so don't be a punchline."— Leslie Nielsen
Trying to Hear in a Room Full of People
This is difficult even for those who are blessed enough to be able to afford hearing aids, however, technology is advancing and some of the really expensive hearing aids (top quality) are gaining ground. There is something missing in the technology that allows one to hear individuals when there is a room full of people talking, or other noises that are going on. People with hearing aids tell me that the background is so amplified that they can't hear the person who is talking right in front of them.
At an extreme level, this can leave people with hearing problems feeling isolated and alone when there are people everywhere. Each month that goes by this is becoming a bigger problem for me.
Missing One Syllable Can Be a Game Changer
Here's where things can get really weird. A person will say a word, but I miss the first syllable (or the last sometimes) and it totally changes what they said. I think a person has just cursed or said something crude, or lewd. I become shocked. I used to say, "I can't believe you just said that." And they will say, "What do you mean? I just said thus and so."
Now when I think I hear something bad or weird, I know I missed something.
Missing a syllable can also cause comedic moments. Here's one of the best examples in my life.
The Urine Test
One day, I went to see a poker-faced ear nose and throat doctor about my hearing issues. He got out his trusty scope and began looking inside my ears. While he was doing this he started asking me questions which I could hear because he so close to my ears. Then he got the tuning fork out and was putting it here and there around my head, circled me and asked more questions. At one point, he stepped away from me, hand on his chin thinking deeply then said, "Have you had a urine test lately?"
Like you, I'm thinking what does that have to do with my hearing? But I answered the question. "Um, well, actually I have."
"And what did it show?"
"Well, if you must know, I had a urinary tract infection."
He looked at me like I had four eyes and said: "I asked if you had a Heeearring test."
I doubled over laughing. I mean I was hysterically laughing. The poker face just shook his head annoyed at my amusement.
"I told you I can't hear." While I was still laughing his nurse came in, wondering what I was laughing at. When I told her she doubled over laughing (perhaps you had to be there if you're not seeing the humor in this little story). He frowned and shook his head at her too. He put all his exam doodads away and dismissively told me to get a hearing test then make another appointment and come in.
I was so tempted to leave a urine specimen in the patient restroom with his name on it. I got my hearing test done and it was a moderate hearing loss. That was a few years ago and it's much worse now. I have not returned to this doctor.
Clarity, Volume, Accents, and Subtitle Nightmares
I have quit watching Jane Austen movies because no matter how much I turn up the sound I can't understand what they're saying. I don't know if it's the accents, or the speed of their speech, or their low tones. Strangely, though, I can hear Downtown Abbey fairly well.
Overall, I'm raising the volume more and more these days, but too often, I still can't make out what's being said. I have taken to using subtitles, which I think is a great feature.
Subtitles are not full proof. Here's why. The first problem is they go too fast for me. The other problem is the dialogue will be humming along, and the subtitle will suddenly say "Unintelligible speech," or something to that effect. Sometimes, it will say "music playing," which I can hear but seeing the words in print on the screen is distracting.
Sometimes, the subtitles are white-colored, but the scene in the movie is a light place, and you can barely read the words. It can be the same with black words on a dark screen.
I Can't Hear Jane Austen
Spelling Bee Conversations
This rarely happens to me at this point, but in desperation, on the phone, I have asked someone to spell a word I can't get. My grandmother did this often. It is very embarrassing to ask this of a stranger. And, this, of course, is not a full proof plan because sometimes I can't hear some of the letters. B, C. D, E, G, P, T, and V can all sound the same. Lots of people have trouble hearing the long E-sound. But if I have to ask them to spell out a word, and I still can't hear them, I ask them to be specific with a letter - in other words, B as in boy. Unfortunately, the speaker is put out because it is so tedious. I totally get it, but it's hard on me.
But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back."— Ludwig van Beethoven
Hearing Impaired Hearing Apparatus for the Hearing Impaired
I mentioned before that hearing aids sometimes fail to help a person in a room with lots of people or other background noise. There are also a few other forms of technology that are sorely lacking. One time, I got a special landline phone which had a screen that would read what the caller was saying. Sounds good, but the machine had trouble all the time interpreting words. Sometimes, either I or the caller was weak in our elocution or tone of voice, and the phone didn't recognize a word (unintelligible like in subtitles). Or, just like the hearing impaired person I am, it misheard words or didn't catch the first syllable.
So basically, it was a hearing impaired apparatus for the hearing impaired. The other problem was that there were hiccups in the text, a time delay kind of thing. Also, the speed of the text was too fast or too slow. It was the most aggravating gadget I have ever known. I sent it back and got a refund.
Sensitive to Loud Noise
In the last year, I have discovered that some noises can actually feel too loud. Sometimes, hearing impaired ears are actually more sensitive to loud noises, or certain types of noise, especially musical sounds or machinery. Loud noise will reverberate in my ears and it's so painful I have to leave. And people with normal hearing may not be bothered by the sound at all.
Advice for the Hard of Hearing Person
There are things we can do, as people with hearing problems, to make things a little easier. Here are the ones I am learning (but not mastered quite yet).
- Be patient with the speaker as much as you want them to be patient with you. Try to see their side.
- Be upfront from the get-go. Tell people on the phone you have hearing issues as soon as you start talking. For in-person encounters, tell someone early on if you see it's going to be challenging. Say something like, "I need to let you know I'm hard of hearing (or whatever term you prefer) so if I do this or that, that's why." You can also tell them what makes it easier for you. This will prevent judgments that you are stupid, snobby, or flaky. It will save stress for both parties. The speaker will be prepared and anticipating difficulties and will be more patient and accommodating hopefully. You will save yourself some embarrassment, and both will be less frustrated. If you get on the phone with a business person who is not willing to work with you and are rude, ask for their supervisor and tell them what's going on. It may help other hard of hearing people who may call.
- Try to work something out with friends, acquaintances, and family. Let them know what you are struggling with and what helps, and let the other person tell you what helps them. Make an agreement to do certain things to make it less stressful on you both.
- Try not to fake it. It only makes things worse. That's a hard one for me when it comes to certain situations with people I don't talk to often, or that I don't know well.
- Stay away from irritable, impatient people. If they are going to be snarky and rude despite any efforts on your part to educate them and work with them, then try your best to stay out of communication with them. There is no excuse for being unkind and impatient for a biological infirmity.
- Learn to read lips. As I see my hearing getting worse, I want to start learning this. It will help a lot.
- Whenever possible, sit where you can hear best. I sit in the second row at church so I can hear better.
Advice to Speakers
- Have a respectful attitude and be kind and patient. It's not the fault of the person who is hard of hearing that they have this condition. It's as difficult if not more for them as it is for you. When you have to raise your voice, don't say it angrily. That's a challenge for spouses, families, and friends because you talk to them so much. It can really break down relationships if one or both parties are impatient and unkind. Be a grown up and work together for solutions.
- Quit with the snide remarks. "You are so deaf." "Why don't you get hearing aids?" (the answer is because they are thousands of dollars and most insurance companies won't pay for them, or only pay half). "Just forget it."
- Face the person so they can clearly see and hear you. If you have your head turned or if you're looking around, the person can't hear you and they can't read your lips if that is a skill they use.
- Ask them if there are other things that help them.
- Get closer to them or move to a quieter spot. If you are in a group setting and there are a lot of different conversations going on, or if you are in a place with other types of noise (e.g. traffic, machinery, music), suggest that you go somewhere quieter or lean in closer so they have a better chance to hear you.
- Don't ignore or abandon them at gatherings.
I have been asked, "If you had to go without hearing or sight, which would you choose?" Hearing because it halts communication and isolates. Few people know sign language. I am glad I am not totally without hearing bur my heart goes out to those with total hearing loss. Isn't Helen Keller a marvel? Such a brilliant and eloquent woman despite not being able to hear or see and difficulty speaking. She had tenacity, and it seems she had very supportive people around her who learned to communicate with her. Helen was a world traveler. Her story is quite amazing.
I hope sharing my personal challenges, which I think represent many who have hearing difficulties, will help you whether you are the speaker or the hearing impaired. I want to say thanks for listening, but I will say thanks for reading.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2019 Lori Colbo