For people with hearing loss, parties are often hard work. Such hard work that many simply stop going to them. But the other night I was at the noisiest party I’ve been to in years. And I had a great time.
The party was a wine and cheese gathering at my apartment to meet the Executive Director of the Hearing Loss Association, Anna Gilmore Hall, who had come to New York to talk to some HLAA donors and activists about her plans for HLAA. I doubt there was anyone there under the age of 50, there was no music, no loudspeakers, no dancing, not even that much drinking. Just 45 people with hearing loss talking to each other. What a racket!
But it was a joyful racket. I think many of us with hearing loss feel marginalized at parties because we can’t hear as well as everyone else. But at this party none of us could understand much of what was being said. We cheerfully read lips and talked louder and louder as the evening went along, knowing that we weren’t missing much that anyone else was getting. It was fun, and I don’t say that often about going to parties.
One guest brought along his Roger assistive device, a pen shaped microphone that he would hold up to a speaker. The sound he wanted to hear — the speaker’s voice — went right to his hearing aid and cochlear implant. All the surrounding noise fell away. Most of us, though, muddled along. Finally when Anna got up to talk, the room fell mercifully quiet.
We could all understand what Anna was saying, not only because she was the only one speaking but because HLAA had arranged to have a CART operator at the gathering, who live captioned her talk on a screen set up in my living room. Here’s a picture of the screen.
We often think of people with hearing loss as living in a quiet world. It is quiet, unless there’s noise around. Then people with hearing loss find themselves in a world that is much noisier to them than to their hearing peers.
As almost anyone with hearing aids knows, hearing aids aren’t very helpful in a noisy restaurant. The human ear — the biological ear — is remarkably efficient in screening wanted from unwanted noise. The younger the ear, the more efficient. Think of your teenager casually chatting with a friend in a room with music blaring at top decibel levels.
The bionic ear — and the aided ear — are woefully lacking in that filtering capacity. All hearing aids, even the most sophisticated, are essentially amplifiers. They pick up the sound and amplify it. The better hearing aids include programs to help screen wanted from unwanted noise but they’re not effective in places like restaurants. The bionic ear, by which I mean a cochlear implant, also lacks the capability to screen effectively.
This is both a plus and a minus. The minuses are obvious. You can’t always hear what you want to where you want to because there is too much noise being transmitted to your brain to allow it to figure out words.
The pluses are not to be discounted, however. I can sit in front of a shrieking three-year-old on a plane and — as long as she’s not also kicking my seat — screen her out by taking out my hearing aid and turning off my cochlear implant.
But back to the noisy party. Because of that same unwanted and unfiltered amplification, most of us at the party were in a sea of noise. Real life SurroundSound. But it was a good noise.