A Joyful Racket

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.

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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.

Talking About Hearing Loss

Or not, which is more often the case. I didn’t talk about it for the first 30 years I had it, except as a joke, a distraction from the fact that I actually couldn’t hear what someone said to me. That’s okay. We all need to talk less about our various ailments and more about literature and politics and art and the Higgs boson.

But that doesn’t mean we should deny it, to ourselves or to others. Because if we do, that means we aren’t going to hear — or participate in — that conversation about the Higgs boson. (The Higgs is on my mind because I just saw “Particle Fever,” which I can safely say is probably the most fun and interesting and thought-provoking movie you’ll ever see about particle physics).

We also shouldn’t deny it, as a society, because if we do we’re going to end up — in the not so distant future — overwhelmed by a disproportionately large segment of our population who can’t hear, who can’t or won’t correct it, and who therefore can no longer be productive members of society.

So that’s the subject of this blog. Or the main subject anyway. If we talk about hearing loss, if we acknowledge it both personally and as a society, we normalize it. And it IS normal. Twenty percent of our population, from teenagers to nonagenarians has hearing loss. Teenagers themselves have hearing loss in astonishingly high numbers — 19% of them. Most of them don’t realize it, or don’t care, but by ignoring it they’re setting themselves up for hearing problems they won’t be able to ignore — at a much younger age than that should be happening.

My hearing loss is not normal. It began when I was 30. Nobody could figure out why I went from hearing perfectly one day to being practically deaf in one ear the next. They still couldn’t figure it out as I progressively lost almost all the hearing in the other ear as well. But what was normal was how I reacted to it: with jokes, with denial, with a refusal to get hearing aids. And then when it got really bad, when I couldn’t do my job or understand what anyone said to me most of the time, I also got seriously depressed. That’s normal too. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

It was only when I began to speak honestly about my hearing loss that I was able to overcome that depression, to find my life again.

I was good at denial. I fooled a lot of people for a lot of years. Most of them didn’t know know I had hearing loss. But (as I learned when I started being more open about it) they did think something was off. Was I going senile? Was I drunk? Burned out? Bored? How could any of these impressions be preferable to acknowledging a physical disability? A disability that can be treated, that should not be incompatible with a healthy productive life.

Once I acknowledged the severity of my hearing loss – to myself and to others – I began to learn to live with it. And the more open I was about it, the better I seemed to hear. The better I DID hear. In this blog I want to share some what I’ve learned about living well with hearing loss.

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For other information about me, go to katherinebouton.com. That site includes archives of the blog posts I’ve written over the past 18 months, as well as reviews of my book, “Shouting Won’t Help,” information about public appearances, and references to other sites and sources about hearing loss.