The Sounds of Spring, with Soundtrack

It’s spring. There’s so much to hear! And it gets louder and louder over the coming months.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In early spring, the stream I walk along is full of ice-melt and cascades down the rocky gulley that is frozen in winter and dry in midsummer, roaring now like ocean waves.

The cardinals, with their winter “cheer, cheer, cheer,” are joined by early spring arrivals with their songs, from the dulcet coo-coo of a mourning dove to the shriek of a blue jay. In a few weeks the migratory birds heading north and those who settle here for the summer will bring new songs. If we’re lucky, the glorious rose-breasted grosbeak will stop by, its sound as beautiful as its appearance. A mocking bird can almost drive you crazy with its seemingly endless serenade. The rat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers varies by their size and the wood they’re tapping.

Later in the season, insects provide a steady soundtrack – katydids, the whine of mosquitoes, the buzzing of bees, cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers, sometimes loud enough to drown out bird song. On late summer afternoons, before the riotous insect noise starts, you can hear the wings of hummingbirds.

The mammals are noisy too. The noisiest is the common gray squirrel, which has an impressive vocabulary, both oral and signed: “kuks, quaas, moans, twitches, and flags among them,” as an article in Wired (soundtrack included) called them.

Even the frogs are noisy. One of the loudest noises in early spring are the peepers. They’re not baby frogs, as you might think from their high pitch, but robust male tree frogs trying to allure potential mates.

I was prompted to think about the how noise heralds spring after a long, mostly silent icy winter by a lovely new book by biologist David George Haskell: “Sounds Wild and Unbroken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction.”

Haskell writes in an early chapter, “Sensory Bargains and Biases,” about his own progressive hearing loss. But he quickly moves on to the sounds of his title: the sounds we hear, the sounds we are endangering (by environmental carelessness), and the sounds we don’t hear: “We are … surrounded by sounds inaccessible to our unaided ears, each one tuned to its environment. Our senses live confined in a small part of the whole.” For those with hearing loss, it’s sometimes an even smaller part.

Another new book on the wonders and threats to nature is “The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans,” by Cynthia Barnett. It’s more a natural history of seashells and what we can learn from them than a book about sound. But one anecdote corrects some popular myths about conch shells. Contrary to the beliefs of wishful shell collectors, they neither reflect the sound of the ocean where they originated nor foretell storms; nor do they magnify the sound of our own blood. What spiral conch, welk and India’s sacred chanc shells do instead is act as perfect resonating chambers, amplifying ambient noise.

A London design studio had the brilliant idea to use bird song as a way to raise consciousness about hearing loss. Their app called “Hearing Bird Song” is an immersive experience that allows you to screen your own hearing. Users listen to recorded bird calls. Based on how well they hear them, by the app’s measures, they may find that they need to have their hearing checked more formally. Here’s an article on the app from Hearing Health and Technology Matters.

David Haskell has made a soundtrack to accompany his book. You can find it here. Even if you don’t hear well, you can adjust the volume. There are 22 tracks, from all over the world. Some are astonishing, and all are fun to listen to. “Five White Crowned Sparrows” (11 seconds) reminded me of one of my early hearing experiences after getting a cochlear implant in 2009. I had a hard time initially adjusting to the implant but one early spring day I was walking in Riverside Park in New York when I heard a cacophony coming from a nearby bush. It was full of sparrows, making a spectacular clamor.

Put in your hearing aids and enjoy the sounds of spring.

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For more about living with hearing loss, read my books “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss” and “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.” Both are available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.com.

CODA at the Oscars

The triumph of CODA at the Academy Awards last night, which won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay, should go a long way towards raising awareness of the Deaf — and maybe also of the Hard of Hearing.

The film is a funny and very moving portrayal of a Deaf family who live in a small fishing town where everyone else is hearing. CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults. In the film, 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the CODA. Father (Troy Kotsur, who won Best Supporting Actor), mother (Marlee Matlin, who won Best Actress for Children of  Lesser God in 1987) and young adult son (Daniel Durant) are Deaf.

The movie is fully captioned for those who want captions. For others, just the signed portions are captioned. Last night the CODA winners each had sign-language interpreters at their side. Their thanks to the Academy and their families and their colleagues were all the more emotional as the interpreters beautifully, almost lyrically, signed their words to the Deaf who were watching. The speeches – and the signed words – felt joyous.

Making spoken words comprehensible to non-signers, like me, is less an art and more a skill. The best captions are provided by a CART captioner, a professional who has trained to simultaneously provide live captions. (CART stands for Communication Access Real Time.)

You can get captions on your TV by activating Closed Captions, but the results will be mixed. If the show is live, like news or sports – or the Academy Awards – the captions will lag behind the speech and also get a lot wrong. This is most likely because they are using automated speech recognition, rather than CART captioners. Why the Academy and the networks can’t hire highly skilled CART captioners is beyond me. Further, the commercials are rarely captioned. Don’t advertisers want the substantial number of viewers with hearing loss to buy their products? Marlee Matlin was an early supporter of captions on TV, testifying in 1995 before Congress. We have captions on TV thanks in part to Matlin. Now we just need to get simultaneous and accurate captioning on TV. That shouldn’t be hard. Hire CART captioners! Spend a little money!

Signing plays a role in another of this year’s Oscar winners. Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, won Best International Feature. The movie is ostensibly about a Japanese director staging a production of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival workshop in Hiroshima. As he’s auditioning actors from all over Asia, who will speak their lines each in their native tongue, a festival representative translates for the director. One actor uses Korean Sign Language. Rather than the fluid musical gestures of American Sign Language, Korean Sign Language – in this scene — is sharp, with emphatic slapping of palms, arms, chest – a little in the same way that Korean (and Japanese) sound staccato to an English speaker. It’s a fascinating glimpse of another Deaf Culture’s language. The signing actor plays Sonya, whose vision of a future where the grief of the present will give way to peace ends the play. The signing here is gentle, spiritual, hopeful, completely unlike what we’ve seen earlier.

I wrote about CODA in 2021 when the movie came out, about a scene where Ruby is performing in a concert. Her singing is mesmerizing, but when the camera shifts to her Deaf family in the audience, the sound cuts out. They are hearing – and understanding – nothing. They are clearly restless and start signing to each other about what to have for dinner. If I were in that audience, I wrote, I also would not be able to appreciate Ruby’s singing. But instead of silence I’d hear a cacophony of sound. Without any visual information (captions, expressive gestures), I might not even know it was music. Where her parents are encased in silence, I’d be turning my hearing aids down.

In the end Ruby finds a way to share her singing with her parents – and with me. The solution is to incorporate a visual component, giving expression to the words without actually understanding them. In Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, the intention is also to give expression to the words even though neither the other actors nor the audience speaks the language (although they are subtitled in the movie, and in the theater when the play is produced). A recent essay in the Atlantic by Nina Li Coomes discussed the film in terms of the fluidity of language in a world where we can get instant translation on our smart phones. “Even if you don’t understand all the words being spoken in the script,” she wrote, “trust that the emotional response you have will be genuine.” Sonya’s signed words evoke an emotional response that feels true.

I’d still rather understand all the words, but being given visual or inflective means to understand the intent – and to respond to it emotionally — is a gift.

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For more about living with hearing loss, read my books “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss” and “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.” Both are available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.com.

What if We Could Cure Hearing Loss? A Clinical Trial Explores the Possibility.

What if we could cure hearing loss? What if those of us who are hard of hearing could put aside the expensive and sometimes frustrating technology we use now? What if we could simply turn a biological switch and hear again, as well as we did before our ears suffered the detrimental effects of noise and age?

Researchers have been working on this problem for decades. They’re optimistic – they’ve always been optimistic. But when you ask when they might have results, the answer has always been, Maybe a decade. That was true when I published my book Shouting Won’t Help, in 2013, and it was true ten years before that.

But there is one big difference between 2013 and 2022 and that is that biotech and pharmaceutical companies have discovered the potential benefits (and potential profits) of restoring hearing, and are putting big money into research. Ten years ago, the researchers who were looking for ways to reverse hearing loss were mostly academics, funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. The nonprofit Hearing Health Foundation also funded this work, through its Hearing Restoration Project, which fostered communication between researchers. Today large pharmaceutical companies like Novartis are funding research. Biotech companies like Frequency Therapeutics seem to be making significant headway. Competition has replaced collaboration.

Why is hearing so hard to restore? We can fully correct vision loss but fumble when it comes to hearing loss. A $500 pair of glasses corrects a complicated vision loss like mine (myopia plus astigmatism), but my $3,000 hearing aid and $10,000 cochlear implant can only approximate normal hearing.

There is a flip side to this, however, a plus in the ability to restore hearing. We can provide adequate hearing in those with profound loss – and in children and others often more than adequate hearing. A cochlear implant allows people who are functionally deaf to hear. We don’t yet have a similar miracle treatment for profound vision loss. There is no cure for blindness, and no treatment at this point. It’s an interesting paradox, with biology at the core.

Finally, though, there’s a chance for hearing restoration, via the promising field of tissue regeneration. What follows is a detailed description of a trial that is currently recruiting participants. Potential applicants should know the history of this trial so far. Others may not want to read on. It’s long!

One of the leaders in the field,  Frequency Therapeutics, based in Lexington, Mass., is now recruiting for a clinical trial on the efficacy of its patented drug candidate FX-322 to restore hearing in people with sensorineural loss. At the moment it is the only active clinical trial to restore hearing, and it’s an ambitious one. (There are other companies working on helping sensorineural hearing loss, but most are looking at more narrow indications, like a specific disorder. Here are links to a few: Decibel Therapeutics, Otonomy, and Pipeline.)

This new study is the sixth clinical trial Frequency has conducted. Earlier trials tested safety, and to a lesser extent also measured efficacy. These trials were encouraging — with one exception, which I’ll get to.

As the company’s scientific staff explained recently in a webinar hosted by the nonprofit Hearing Loss Association of America, FX-322 is a combination of two molecules that can potentially regenerate cochlear progenitor cells, which, it is hoped, will form new sensory hair cells in the inner ear. Progenitor cells are active in utero, but so far no mechanism exists to reactivate them later in life to restore hearing. (Other species, including birds and reptiles, do have the ability restore their hearing). FX-322 is intended to reactivate these cells through a process called Progenitor Cell Activation, or PCA.

Here’s how it works: An ENT physician injects FX-322 into the middle ear. The liquid injection, a polymer, becomes a gel in the middle ear, which allows prolonged diffusion into the cochlea. Early tests on mice showed favorable changes in those cells, suggesting that they can be successfully reactivated. (If you are interested in knowing more about FX-322 and how it works, see a 2021 article in the journal Otology & Neurotology.)

In Frequency’s first trial of FX-322 on humans, which started in 2018, 23 adult subjects aged 33 to 64 with mild to moderately severe stable sensorineural hearing loss were enrolled in a study mostly to assess safety. Fifteen received FX-322 and 8 received a placebo. The company’s analysis showed statistically significant and clinically meaningful increases in word recognition in four of the 15 subjects treated with FX-322, with some nearly doubling their word scores from baseline. Two others showed improvements that were not statistically significant. FX-322 was observed to be well-tolerated in this trial with no serious adverse events. In the months following, five of the six individuals who had seen improvements in speech perception returned for testing. Three of the subjects continued to show statistically significant improvements in word recognition 13 to 21 months after the study. Several other studies of safety and administration of the drug also showed improved speech perception. It was time to focus on efficacy. Does it actually restore hearing?

But then came the setback. Ninety-five patients with mild to moderately severe hearing loss were enrolled in an efficacy study, with results announced in March 2021. This study, disappointingly, found no improvement in hearing in those treated but, paradoxically, found better hearing in those who received the placebo and in the untreated ear of those who got the drug. That’s the opposite of what one would hope. In a clinical trial you want the drug being tested to work where it’s been administered. If, instead, the drug has no effect on the treated ear, but improves hearing in untreated ears — those receiving the placebo and the untreated ear in those receiving the drug — it likely means that there is something wrong with the test. 

Frequency attributed the troubling findings to design flaws that allowed bias. For example, a single baseline measure resulted in too much variability. Further, tips on how to qualify for the trial were shared by patients on social media. Frequency accepts responsibility for the flaws that let bias into the study. The new study uses more rigorous protocols for baseline measures in addition to more stringent blinding of entry criteria.

Encouraged by favorable results in the other studies, and confident that they could make protocols more rigorous, the company decided to go forward with plans to test efficacy again. In October 2021, Frequency began to recruit participants to the new trial, which will enroll 124 participants, half of whom will receive the drug, half a placebo. Patients will receive a single injection. Prior to receiving the drug or placebo, patient hearing will be tested three times, two weeks apart, to arrive at a single average baseline. The tests will be recorded and monitored. The trial is double blind: no one involved will know who gets the drug and who the placebo. Patients will return to the testing site for hearing tests monthly for six or seven months. There are 26 sites across the country. Recruiting continues through most of this year. (To learn more about the trial, criteria for inclusion, and how to apply to participate, go to ClinicialTrials.gov.)

Part of the preparation for the new investigation was coming to an agreement with the FDA about trial design. What measure should be used to calculate efficacy? The FDA and Frequency agreed on improvement in speech recognition. Speech perception would be tested at baseline and then one, two and three months after. The tests include several standard tests of speech perception, including words-in-noise, words-in-quiet, and sentences-in-noise. Frequency and the FDA also agreed on the inclusion of a questionnaire with multiple parts to be administered to each participant at the beginning and end of the study.

Previous studies of FX-322 in mice and the safety tests in humans showed improvement in high frequency sound, which is at the top end of the area where speech recognition lies (this is mapped as the speech banana on an audiogram). High frequencies are at the opening of the spiral cochlea and thus more easily reached by the injected drug. A future study is planned on a second compound, FX-345, which is expected to penetrate further into the cochlea and thus into lower frequencies.

In agreeing on speech recognition as the measure of efficacy, Frequency and the FDA were guided by practicalities. Other measures of success ideally would have included visual evidence in the hair cells in the cochlea, as was shown in studies in mice. But it’s not possible to study changes in the hair cells in humans (except in an autopsy).

Many steps lie ahead. Carl LeBel, Chief Development Officer at Frequency, estimated a timeline: a year for this trial, ending approximately at the end of 2022. Then the results go to the FDA. If the data is favorable, testing goes into final phases. “We’re looking for an approval of FX-322 sometime in the middle part of this decade,” Dr. LeBel said, acknowledging that he was being deliberately vague.

How permanent would a clinical change be? Early tests suggest that some participants retained their improved scores longer than others. Do people with long-standing hearing loss fare worse than people newly impaired? So far, the data suggest there is no difference. Are the ears still  subject to damage from noise, aging, ototoxins? Probably.

Dr. LeBel cautioned that the researchers expect gains to be slight at first. Someone considering a cochlear implant might be able to continue using a hearing aid instead. Someone with more moderate loss could forgo a hearing aid, at least for a while. Dr. LeBel said he sees the drug as part of a patient’s overall hearing plan. “We see it fitting in and being used in a complementary way with the way devices are used today.”

Frequency’s FX-322 is a work in progress. But the fact that it is in progress, and in humans, is something to be optimistic about. Other trials at other institutions will be testing other methods. The race is on.

In the meantime, the best advice for those with hearing loss is to keep our brains in shape by wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants. That will keep speech pathways from atrophy, which would mean a harder time reviving them if – or when — a drug to reverse hearing loss comes along.

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For more about living with hearing loss, read Smart Hearing, available on paper or as an e-book at Amazon.com, or Shouting Won’t Help, available in both formats at Amazon and other booksellers.

Hearing and Healthy Aging

Recently I was invited to write an editorial referencing two studies on the effect of hearing on healthy aging. The article has just been published, in the Journals of Gerontology. Most readers won’t be able to access it, so I’m reprinting the text here. The title is “The Importance of Hearing in Maintaining Overall Functioning as We Age.” It’s a bit more formal than my posts are, and it’s edited a bit here for clarity.

As my hearing deteriorated in the decades following my initial loss at age 30, I worried that I would go deaf. Now, I worry that I will lose my cognitive faculties. The specter of dementia looms large for people with severe hearing loss. The statistical association between hearing loss, depression, and cognitive decline is well documented. What is not known is whether the association is causal, or shares a common pathogen, or is related in some other way. To explore this, a major study, the Achieve Study, is underway to see if hearing aids help reduce the risk.

The threat of cognitive decline is often cited as a reason to correct your hearing loss—to get hearing aids or cochlear implants or other hearing devices. But as people with severe hearing loss know, these do not fully correct hearing. I have worn hearing aids for more than 30 years. Twelve years ago, I replaced one aid with a cochlear implant, when the aid stopped being helpful. Certainly, I hear better with hearing aids than without. But I can hear adequately only under the best circumstances: in a quiet environment or with 1 or 2 other speakers who speak slowly and clearly. Adding even a fourth speaker to that conversation increases the likelihood of 2 people talking at once. When that happens, I cannot follow anything.

I have long worried that my corrected but far from normal hearing puts me in the same category as someone with untreated loss. One of the articles the journal asked me to comment on confirmed my suspicion. A study by Katharine K. Brewster and others from the Departments of Psychiatry and Otolaryngology at Columbia, Age-Related Hearing Loss, Late-Life Depression, and Risk of Dementia in Older Adults, studied 8529 participants.  Of those 6478 were classified as having no hearing loss, 1102 as having treated hearing loss, and 949 as having untreated hearing loss. The last category included people who had hearing aids but had “hearing impairment despite hearing aid use.” All 8529 participants were free of cognitive decline at the start of the study.

Depressing but not surprising: Individuals with treated hearing loss were at higher risk for depression as well as dementia than those with no hearing loss. But, confounding expectation, they were also at higher risk than those with untreated hearing loss. As the authors wrote, “We expected treatment of hearing loss would be protective against adverse neuropsychiatric consequences.”

What could explain this? The first possibility is an error, meaning the results need to be replicated by future studies. There is also the possibility that hearing aid treatment itself has harmful effects on mood, which the authors thought unlikely. Their preferred explanation was that people who get hearing aids have hearing loss that is both more severe and of longer duration. This more severe loss increases the risk of depression and dementia. Because the efficacy of treatment was self-reported to clinicians—rather than tested audiometrically—it is also possible that some of those with treated loss were not receiving adequate hearing treatment.

The third explanation—that people with treated hearing loss usually have longer-occurring and more severe hearing loss—makes sense. Statistics show that it takes 7 years from the time of diagnosis to purchase of hearing aids, and often even once they own hearing aids many people rarely or never wear them.

But I would not discount the explanation that treatment has a harmful effect on mood.

People who pay $6 000 for hearing aids expect that they will work. They are often dismayed to find that even with their expensive new devices they still cannot hear in restaurants or places where there is background noise. They still need captions to hear TV. They still cannot hear at meetings or lectures. They are told they must buy more devices—assistive listening devices and remote mics. In addition, hearing aids can be troublesome—the batteries run out at inconvenient times or the vents get clogged with ear wax or the charger is not working properly. They are easy to lose. During the pandemic, many found that wearing a mask dislodged hearing aids, and sometimes they fell down sink drains or were lost on the street. Hearing aids by their very presence are a reminder of disability. All this can be very depressing!

It is thought that hearing loss may initiate a deleterious cascade of events including social isolation. Difficulty hearing may affect executive function and result in decreased cognitive reserve. Studies have shown atrophy of brain regions connected to auditory circuits. These “may explain the mechanistic links between hearing loss, depression, and cognitive decline,” they wrote. But the study found that depression was responsible for only 6% of the hearing–dementia relationship. “Hearing loss and depression are independent risk factors” for dementia, but how each affects the other to exacerbate cognitive decline or dementia is not clear.

Even if the mechanisms haven’t been explained, however, the authors advise that because hearing loss and memory problems and depression are so often found together, evaluation of an older patient with symptoms of cognitive decline or depression should include evaluation for hearing loss. This is a much-needed piece of advice. Currently, only 17 to 30 percent of physicians, including gerontologists, screen for hearing loss.

The second study presented here is more heartening or at least part of it is. The Association of Hearing Impairment with Higher Level Physical Functioning and Walking Endurance, an epidemiological study done by researchers at Johns Hopkins, using the long-term Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. It found that hearing loss is linked to poorer physical function, including slower walking. The more severe the loss, as measured audiometrically, the greater the physical decline. The 831 participants with hearing loss, treated or not, overall scored worse in a test of physical performance and walking endurance than people with normal hearing. Over the 6 years of the study, they showed faster rates of decline than participants with normal hearing or mild hearing loss. Vestibular dysfunction was factored in. But, and here is the encouraging news, hearing aid users—regardless of the severity of their loss—walked significantly faster than nonusers.

The authors acknowledged that their study population was more likely to be white and have higher socioeconomic status, both associated with better physical function, than the general population. In addition, hearing aid use was self-reported with answers limited to Yes or No on whether they used hearing aids. But it is still a tantalizing finding. The authors suggest that social isolation, cognitive impairment, and reduced physical activity may play a greater role among the non-hearing aid users. Auditory clues can contribute to balance, and uncorrected hearing loss might affect vestibular function. There is also the possibility that hearing loss and poor physical performance have a common cause.

Another possible explanation occurred to me as I was reading this study. Treating hearing loss takes initiative. People who get hearing aids often must overcome hurdles like lack of access to good hearing health care as well as significant expense, because hearing aids are not covered by most health insurance, including Medicare. Maybe this same initiative contributes to better physical self-care. Just as they have taken the initiative to buy and wear hearing aids, the better performers may have tried to stay healthy in other ways, including diet and exercise.

One takeaway from both these studies is that exercise is good for you. Exercise can ease symptoms of depression (an established risk factor for cognitive decline). The finding that hearing aid users walked longer and faster than nonusers, regardless of the severity of their loss, suggests that “screening for and treatment of hearing loss may delay or slow progression of hearing-related physical decline.” In other words, get your hearing tested and treated, and your overall physical health may benefit.

For more about living with hearing loss, read  Smart Hearing, available on paper or as an e-book at Amazon.com, or Shouting Won’t Help, available in both formats at Amazon and other booksellers.

You’re Not Alone: Books Can Help You on Your Hearing Loss Journey

Nice post on the website of Let’s Loop Seattle, which discusses books for people with hearing loss, including children. You can add your own favorites, either on the original post or on this one. I’m always looking for good new reading on the subject. I’ll be writing about Gael Hannan and Shari Eberts new book, Hear & Beyond, in a future post.

Here’s the URL (which for some reason I can’t link to the title on my page): https://loopseattle.org/2022/02/14/youre-not-alone-books-can-help-you-on-your-hearing-loss-journey/

Does Hearing Loss Affect Your Sense of Direction?

Last April, the New Yorker Magazine ran an article about animal migration called “Why Animals Don’t Get Lost,” by Kathryn Schulz. The article was full of fascinating insights into animal navigation and amazing tales of seemingly impossible journeys. But one passage leapt out at me:

“The problem isn’t that humans don’t have any innate way-finding tools. We, too, can steer by landmark, and we can locate the source of sounds or other environmental cues and make our way toward them. (With sounds, we do this much like frogs: by unconsciously assessing either the intensity differential or the time delay between a noise in our right ear and in our left one.)”

If you have hearing loss, you may not have that sense of directionality. My hearing loss is bilateral and wildly uneven, which affects my ability to locate the source of a sound.  If someone calls to me from another room, I can’t tell where they are. Where are you?, I shout, to their annoyance – and mine. Although I can often hear a bird call, I can almost never find the bird. In that sense, my hearing loss does affect my sense of direction.

Photo by Isaque Pereira on Pexels.com

If you have bilateral hearing loss that is the same in both ears, however, as most age- or noise-related hearing loss is, and if your hearing is corrected by hearing aids, it seems logical that you shouldn’t have any trouble using audible feedback as a guide. But I haven’t read anything about this, so it’s only a surmise. Readers, if you have hearing loss that is bilateral and equal on both sides, do you have trouble locating the source of sounds?

Although we use our ears to locate, we don’t for the most part use them to navigate, in the sense of assessing directionality. Our hearing loss affects our ability to navigate in a more prosaic way. We can’t hear auditory signals. We need other input to aid us in way-finding.

Way-finding is an important component in designing public spaces, and it’s especially important for people with disabilities. The New York City subway is a good example. Until recently, information about route changes, elevator outages, delays, and so on were delivered by garbled public-address systems in the stations and on subway cars. Longer term information (elevator out of service for maintenance or repair) was relayed by paper signs taped to the walls. Many people were confused much of the time, whether or not they had a disability.

In recent years, the MTA has developed an Accessibility Team, including an Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility. made up of individuals with disabilities (ACTA, I am a member), to improve access for people with disabilities. Most visible are obstacles to people with mobility disabilities who depend on the system’s notoriously unreliable elevators.

But much of what the team addresses is less well understood by the general public. These include the navigational needs of people with hearing loss, the deaf-blind, people with cognitive disabilities. For instance, the subway system includes a number of stations where many lines cross. Jay Street/MetroTech in Brooklyn is one of these hubs. Four subway lines cross, and the station has three levels below street level. A mezzanine level has fare arrays as well as staircases and elevators down to the three different platforms. Trains run on different levels, with the IND trains one level down from the mezzanine, BMT trains two levels down from the mezzanine, all connected by multiple passageways. Talk about confusing. In 2019, SWA turned the Jay Street/MetroTech station into a laboratory for testing accessibility features for subway riders.

Some existing ADA-accessible features are what you’d expect: working elevators and directions to them, hearing loops at information and help kiosks (freestanding blue-light stanchions in many stations), Braille lettering on signage. In the second half of 2019, the Accessibility team installed and tested additional, more innovative accessibility features:: Tactile interactive maps. Bright, contrasting color-coded directional floor treatments , with the colors matching the color-coded lines: yellow for the BMT (the R train), blue and orange for the IND lines (the A, C, and F). , etc). ADA blue (darker blue) indicates the accessible path of travel. Tactile floor guides and warning strips at stairways and platform edge benefit the blind — or, in the case of the platform edge, just people who aren’t paying enough attention.

Way-finding apps include NaviLens, which provides audio information, and ClickandGo Wayfinding,which offers step by step audio descriptions and accompanying high-contrast color maps, similar to the floor designs. You can see all these on the MTA’s Accessible Station webpage. Many of the tested features remain at the Jay Street/MetroTech Station, though not surprisingly the floor guides are beginning to fade.

Here are some photos from Jay Street/Metrotech Station.

Some of these accessible-navigation features would be a help to any traveler. Floor treatments in contrasting colors, clear and consistent icons on all signage, signage at eye level instead of overhead, directional markings on the floor, these benefit anyone who uses the subway, not just those with disabilities.

For the deaf and hard of hearing signage is essential. It’s another form of captioning. If you don’t have to ask for directions, you’re never handicapped by not being able to hear the answer.

So, to go back to my original question: Does Hearing Loss Affect Your Sense of Direction? Yes, it can affect the ability to locate by sound. It also may affect the ability to navigate by sound, but primarily in the sense of not being able to hear spoken directions. The inability to follow sound cues in navigation needn’t be a handicap if those directions are also offered visually. Captions are the wheelchair ramp for the deaf, as we often like to say.

For more about hearing loss, read my books Shouting Won’t Help and Smart Hearing.

New York City Mandates Open Captions in Movie Theaters.

[Note: If this looks familiar, it’s because it was published yesterday under a different title. Feel free to read it again.]

It’s nice to be able to end this generally awful year with some good news.

On December 15th, New York’s City Council passed a bill that requires movie theaters to provide daily showings of movies with open captions.

Goodbye Gooseneck!

Goodbye Gooseneck!

That means no more struggling with individual cupholder-anchored, gooseneck caption screens, or with captioned glasses that weighed heavily on your nose. Once the bill is signed into law, you will be able to see which movies are showing with open captions and at what time. You can walk into the theater, sit down with your popcorn, and watch a movie with captions running right on the screen.

Details are yet to be worked out, but the law requires that every theater offer every movie with open captioned showings on weekdays, weekends and in evenings. The ratio will probably be one out of every four showings.

You probably won’t be able to see captioned trailers or ads, but that might change eventually. I’ve always wondered why ads on TV don’t have captions – don’t the advertisers realize that people who use captions also have money to spend? Why do they ignore such a relatively large market?

If neither the outgoing mayor, Bill De Blasio, nor Eric Adams, incoming, gets around to signing the bill, it becomes law on January 15, 30 days following its passage. Theaters then have 120 days to begin complying with the open-captioned regulations.

The bill was co-sponsored by outgoing City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who has been behind a number of bills supporting the interests of people with disabilities over her eight-year (term-limited) tenure. Thank you CM Rosenthal.

Supporters of the bill, including HLAA members who testified at the City Council hearing where the bill was debated, point out that captions benefit far more people than simply the deaf and hard of hearing. Jerry Bergman, of HLAA, who has been working with theater owners on open captioning, said: “We believe that open captioning will benefit seniors with moderate age-related hearing loss, children learning to read, and immigrants for whom English is a second language.”

In the movie “True Grit” (2010) actor Jeff Bridges was so difficult to understand that parodies appeared suggesting various hilarious interpretations. Think how much even those with perfect hearing would have gained by actually understanding Bridges, who was nominated for an Academy Award in spite of his mumbling. The winner, ironically, was Colin Firth for “The King’s Speech,” in which King George VI learns to overcome a speech impediment.

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In less happy news, this week saw the death of one of New York’s seminal supporters for people with disabilities. Anne Emerman contracted polio in 1944 and used a wheelchair all her life. In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins appointed her director of the Mayor’s Office of the Handicapped. At the same time, the name was changed to the more person-centered Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MoPD). New York’s current Commissioner, Victor Calise, said of Emerman: “She was fierce… She set a standard of advocacy in city government that is still going on today… She knew her stuff, and you weren’t going to mess with her.”

Like many disability rights activists, she bucked some powerful figures, among them Mother Teresa. Read the obit for details. And while you’re at it, read the obituary of another fierce New York City activist who died this year, Edith Prentiss.

Every New Yorker– not just people with disabilities – benefits from the work of these two determined women. Next time you take the ramp with your heavy suitcase instead of dragging it up the stairs, think of activists like Emerman and Prentiss. And as you settle in with your popcorn for an open-captioned movie, remember that they laid the groundwork for that kind of accommodation as well.

Some Good News, for a Change

It’s nice to be able to end this generally awful year with some good news.

On December 15th, New York’s City Council passed a bill that requires movie theaters to provide daily showings of movies with open captions.

Goodbye Gooseneck!

That means no more struggling with individual cupholder-anchored, gooseneck caption screens, or with captioned glasses that weighed heavily on your nose. Once the bill is signed into law, you will be able to see which movies are showing with open captions and at what time. You can walk into the theater, sit down with your popcorn, and watch a movie with captions running right on the screen.

Details are yet to be worked out, but the law requires that every theater offer every movie with open captioned showings on weekdays, weekends and in evenings. The ratio will probably be one out of every four showings.

You probably won’t be able to see captioned trailers or ads, but that might change eventually. I’ve always wondered why ads on TV don’t have captions – don’t the advertisers realize that people who use captions also have money to spend? Why do they ignore such a relatively large market?

If neither the outgoing mayor, Bill De Blasio, nor Eric Adams, incoming, gets around to signing the bill, it becomes law on January 15, 30 days following its passage. Theaters then have 120 days to begin complying with the open-captioned regulations.

The bill was co-sponsored by outgoing City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who has been behind a number of bills supporting the interests of people with disabilities over her eight-year (term-limited) tenure. Thank you CM Rosenthal.

Supporters of the bill, including HLAA members who testified at the City Council hearing where the bill was debated, point out that captions benefit far more people than simply the deaf and hard of hearing. Jerry Bergman, of HLAA, who has been working with theater owners on open captioning, said: “We believe that open captioning will benefit seniors with moderate age-related hearing loss, children learning to read, and immigrants for whom English is a second language.”

In the movie “True Grit” (2010) actor Jeff Bridges was so difficult to understand that parodies appeared suggesting various hilarious interpretations. Think how much even those with perfect hearing would have gained by actually understanding Bridges, who was nominated for an Academy Award in spite of his mumbling. The winner, ironically, was Colin Firth for “The King’s Speech,” in which King George VI learns to overcome a speech impediment.

*

In less happy news, this week saw the death of one of New York’s seminal supporters for people with disabilities. Anne Emerman contracted polio in 1944 and used a wheelchair all her life. In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins appointed her director of the Mayor’s Office of the Handicapped. At the same time, the name was changed to the more person-centered Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MoPD). New York’s current Commissioner, Victor Calise, said of Emerman: “She was fierce… She set a standard of advocacy in city government that is still going on today… She knew her stuff, and you weren’t going to mess with her.”

Like many disability rights activists, she bucked some powerful figures, among them Mother Teresa. Read the obit for details. And while you’re at it, read the obituary of another fierce New York City activist who died this year, Edith Prentiss.

Every New Yorker– not just people with disabilities – benefits from the work of these two determined women. Next time you take the ramp with your heavy suitcase instead of dragging it up the stairs, think of activists like Emerman and Prentiss. And as you settle in with your popcorn for an open-captioned movie, remember that they laid the groundwork for that kind of accommodation as well.

Has the Pandemic Affected Your Hearing?

Captions have become ubiquitous during these many months of isolation. Is that an unmitigated good for those with hearing loss? For me, at least, maybe not.

When I watch TV or streaming video, it’s captioned. I set the volume so I can hear the spoken words to supplement the captions, but it’s the other way around. The captions fool me into thinking I’m hearing.

My phone is captioned, and again the captions seem to clarify the sound.  

Meetings online are captioned. Thank goodness.

This is all very convenient, but is it good for my hearing?

Are you really listening?

I see family and friends in person, and after a brief adjustment period, I’m usually okay. Familiar faces, familiar voices. No masks. I read lips to supplement. I sometimes use Otter captions.

But lately I’ve noticed that I’m not hearing what I used to. I have trouble understanding people I used to be fine with. I’ve always been able to follow my Pilates teacher if she’s wearing my companion mic, but now her words, muffled by a mask, are lost to me.

Unfamiliar voices, masked or not, are more difficult than they used to be.

Routine cash register comments?  If it’s the pharmacy, it’s probably, “Date of birth?” But the other day one stumped me. The masked supermarket clerk behind her plexiglass shield repeated her question three or four times. Finally, I took a stab at “No, thanks.” It was only when I was out of the store that I realized she was asking, “Do you want to use reward points for this?”

Like many of us during the pandemic, I‘m alone much of the time. I don’t feel isolated, because I keep in touch with friends and family by FaceTime, email, and phone calls. Most days I exchange routine greetings with people on the street, or with the guy I buy my newspaper from, or from other dog walkers. But exchanging pleasantries doesn’t require real hearing.

It’s possible the problem is that I’m just out of practice. Or maybe I’ve gotten lazy with my hearing: I don’t try to distinguish sound because I don’t need to in my captioned world. I’m hearing but not listening. A few years ago I wrote about “mindful listening” in a post on auditory rehabilitation. I may not be following my own advice.

Is this a pandemic side effect? Has isolation affected my hearing? Or, maybe, has isolation affected my listening? I’ve made an appointment with my audiologist to check my heairng, both with and without hearing aids. If it turns out my hearing is unchanged, I’ll have to chalk it up to lazy listening.

Readers, have you had a similar experience? Did you have your hearing checked? Was it your hearing or your listening that was causing the problem. Please share in the comments.

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For more about living with hearing loss, read  Smart Hearing, available on paper or as an e-book at Amazon.com, or Shouting Won’t Help, available in both formats at Amazon and other booksellers.

Holiday TLC, Redux

This Thanksgiving may be the first time we’ve seen family and friends since the beginning of the Pandemic. I’m both excited and a little nervous. Holidays can be difficult for the hard of hearing. Here are some ways you can make it a little easier on yourself.

T is for Technology

Assistive Listening Devices. Use them! These can be something as simple as a Williams Sound PockeTalker or as sophisticated as a Phonak Roger system with multiple microphones.

The PockeTalker is an amplifier with a microphone. The speaker talks into a mic, the listener uses earbuds or a headset. It won’t allow you to hear the conversation at the other end of the table but you will hear at least one person better. The Williams Sound PockeTalker is available at many outlets. Amazon lists them at $184, batteries included.

Your smart phone can act as an assistive listening device, using a detachable mic and wired headphones or earbuds with a downloaded app. Try a few headphones and see what works best for you. If your phone is connected by Bluetooth to the hearing aids, you don’t need headphones. Both Android and iPhones have an app called Sound Amplifier. I haven’t tried either. Consumer reviews are mixed. Please add a comment if you have used either of these. There is a charge for Sound Amplifier. [Addendum: The IOS Hearing Aid-Sound Amplifier offers one month free, then $4.99. Readers seem confused about whether there is a charge — even though I say there is. I don’t have an Android phone so cannot check their charge.]

If you’d rather have instant captions, try Otter.ai, an iPhone app, or Google Live Transcribe for Android phones. You can also use systems like Dragon Dictation. I use Otter and have used Live Transcribe. I recommend both. They are free.

Don’t forget the most basic tech fix of all: a pen and paper.

L is for Location.

The best location for a person with hearing loss depends on the nature of their hearing. I hear better from my right ear, for instance, so I try to position myself with at least one strong voice to my right. That way I can ask that person what was said. For others, sitting at the center of the table may allow them to hear the whole table better.

If there’s background music, sit as far from the speakers as possible, or ask the host to turn the music down — or, preferably, off.

If you end up in a particularly noisy spot, ask if you can change seats with someone. Often the easiest time to do this is between courses, or before dessert. Some hosts move guests around at a dessert as a matter of course, a social tradition that can be useful for the hard of hearing.

C is for Care.

Take care of others. There a few things more emotionally rewarding than doing for someone else. Volunteer to serve dinner at a homeless shelter. Invite friends who may not have anywhere else go. I always like to include people newly arrived in America, who don’t know much about Thanksgiving. Often these are friends of my children’s, whose social network is much farther flung than mine.

There are lots of ways the word Care should be part of your Thanksgiving TLC.

First, take care in how you listen. I think of this as mindful listening. As I wrote in an earlier post, “Watch the impulse to say What? or ‘Huh? Think before you respond. What’s the context of the conversation? What parts of the sentence did you get? Is there a logical missing word? We always tell people with hearing loss not to pretend they’ve heard, not to guess. But guessing can be an effective strategy for getting someone to repeat in a way that makes the whole sentence comprehensible.”

In other words, when asking what was said, you’ll get a much more helpful response if instead of “What?” You ask “Did he say this butter is acid free?” That way the speaker knows you’ve missed “lactose free.” [And for those with lactose intolerance, check out Green Valley lactose-free butter.)

Take care of yourself. When it gets too noisy, take a break in another room. Trying to hear is exhausting. Help serve and clear the table. Wash some dishes. Play with the baby. Go home early if you have to.

The T could also stand for Thankful. I hate to sound sentimental, but remember to be thankful for what you do have, rather than making yourself miserable about what you don’t, like good hearing.

This post is adapted and updated from a previous post. For more about living with hearing loss, read  Smart Hearing, available at Amazon.com, or Shouting Won’t Help, available at Amazon and other booksellers