Hollywood and Hearing Loss

Several people have asked if I’ve seen “Sound of Metal,” a movie about hearing loss, which was released late last year. At first I avoided it. The trailer featured a metal drummer playing very loudly, and it didn’t look all that appealing. I finally did watch, with the sound turned way down and the captions on, and enjoyed it.

RiZ AHMED

Riz Ahmed plays the drummer, Ruben, who experiences sudden deafness. The portrayal of the experience of hearing loss seemed very accurate to me. Too little comprehension, too much noise. Ruben’s emotional reaction to the loss – anger, depression, confusion – will also be familiar to many. Ruben is a recovering addict, which adds to the difficulty. Watching Ruben struggling to understand what is happening to him took me back to the days when I too experienced sudden hearing loss. Ruben’s sensitivity to loud noises reminded me of what felt like the physical assault of noise in New York City, where I lived. I was sensitive not just to loud sounds like a siren or jackhammer, but to less obvious ones, including the blast of a city bus braking or accelerating.

“Sound of Metal” is nominated for six academy awards this year, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Riz Ahmed) best supporting actor (Paul Raci), best original screenplay (Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, and Derek Cianfrance). Tellingly, it is also nominated for best sound. When you’re making a movie about hearing loss, sound is important.

The movie has generated controversy in the Deaf community. Neither Ahmed nor Raci is Deaf, although Raci is the son of Deaf parents. Ruben at first joins a Deaf community, where the group leader, played by Raci, welcomes him and helps him learn ASL. Riz Ahmed studied ASL for 7 months prior to filming. Some of the other actors, though not the principals, are Deaf.

The movie has also caused some consternation in the hearing loss community, in particular in its depiction of cochlear implants. The information is misleading and in some cases inaccurate. Ruben receives bilateral implants. We don’t hear any discussion of trying hearing aids first, in an effort to make the most of his residual hearing. In addition, bilateral implants are rarely done at the same time. Surgeons prefer to implant one ear, make sure the implant works for the recipient, and then go back later for the second implant.

We don’t see any of the evaluation process or any discussion that would ordinarily precede this surgery. A surgeon and audiologist would have talked about expectations, which shouldn’t be too high – and in fact Ruben’s first reaction to the metallic sound of the implant is distress. But he’s a quick learner. Some have also questioned this as well. As I can attest, learning to hear again with a cochlear implant takes hard work, if possible with a speech-language pathologist. But Ruben has been only recently deafened, and in real life he might quickly regain good speech discrimination. Ruben is also told that health insurance doesn’t cover implants, which range from $40 to $60,000. This is not accurate. Almost all health insurers will cover at least one implant, as will Medicare and in many states Medicaid.

Perhaps most alarming to me was the lack of any apparent reaction to the fact of his sudden deafness. Sudden deafness can be an indication of a serious medical condition and an ENT should immediately test for auditory nerve damage, auto-immune disease and other conditions. An MRI and a strong dose of oral steroids is also usually prescribed. His drumming would no doubt have contributed to hearing loss, but unless he was exposed to an explosion or other loud sound, the loss would have been gradual.

I liked the movie, and am sorry for the misrepresentations, though the depiction of the impact of hearing loss is valuable, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it so accurately portrayed elsewhere. So many people get their information from movies like this one, and it’s good to show the reality of hearing loss. It’s also a bit of a shame to have cochlear implants inaccurately portrayed.

For other analyses of the movie, I recommend this essay by Donna Sorkin. She is the Executive Director of the American Cochlear Implant Alliance. Sorkin was also interviewed for this article in USA Today. My fellow blogger and HLAA member Shari Eberts wrote about the film shortly after it came out at the end of last year. And here’s an essay from HLAA’s Lise Hamlin: Sound of Misinformation.

The Academy Awards are on Sunday October 25th. “Sound of Metal” is available on Amazon Prime.

Readers, what movies do you like that have characters with hearing loss? Is hearing loss per se — as opposed to signing Deafness — ever portrayed in movies? Can you think of any?

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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.