Friday, October 27, 2006


(News-Herald, October 26) I used to get ear infections as a child. If you’re a member of the ear infection club, you know how awful they can be—a sort of unending icepick in the side of the head that never relents, and when you try to sleep starts to throb like a pounding toothache connected directly to your skull. I hated those a lot.
My ears haven’t been assaulted like that in decades, but a few weeks back the creeping crud invaded my ear and would not leave, not even for antibiotics. I was relieved that it didn’t hurt. But it did turn me temporarily mostly-deaf on one side.
Now, I don’t want to insult those people who have real, serious hearing issues by comparing some illness-induced impairment to true hearing loss. But my 9-10 days of audio dis-enhancement made me think about the real thing.
I’ve known a few hearing-impaired persons, and they’ve told me some of this. But as is often the case with these things, I heard it, but I didn’t really get it.
Short answer—hearing impairment stinks.
It is not, as some unimpaired hearers imagine, like having the volume turned down on the big stereo of life. Instead, someone is messing around with the tone knobs and the equalizer. Some sounds come through as clearly as ever, some are completely missing, and some come through in a garbled or muffled form.
In large groups, picking out voices is nearly hopeless. I was surprised to realize that if my mild hearing loss had turned out somehow to be permanent, I would definitely have started to avoid any kind of largish social gathering. And I’m not sure that I could have continued to teach.
Even one on one, listening was hard. Again—it’s not that the sound of the voice is just fainter, but instead it’s broken up, like words on a page where random letters and bits of letters have been erased. You can hear the talking. You can tell that there are words, sentences. You just can’t tell what they are. It’s like being in a country where they speak a foreign language.
You miss lots. You don’t always hear the little verbal cues that let you know what’s coming, that set up the context for the next statement. If you are not looking right at the person, you may miss the beginning of the whole business. You don’t just feel as if you have trouble hearing; you feel as if you’ve turned slightly stupid.
It’s funny how quickly you can feel cut off from things. Blind people look blind. Physical disabilities are clearly seen. But a hearing disability is invisible. No one can look at you and tell that you’re having trouble hearing. At best, you just look like you’re having trouble understanding.
It takes a lot of concentration, a lot of intense paying attention to follow what’s going on. I found several on-line articles that suggest that hard-of-hearing students can be mistaken for ADD. Didn’t hear my instructions? Weren’t you listening? Can’t you pay attention?? After just a week, I often felt the temptation to just nod and smile and make a wild guess what the person had just asked me (if it was, in fact, a question).
My Grandmother Binmore had hearing issues her whole life. When I was little she still had one of those hearing aids, about the size and shape of an old cigarette lighter. It hung around her neck, and when things weren’t working just right, it squealed. It was annoying and sometimes she would just turn it off. I wonder what it’s like to have to choose between cutting yourself off from the people around you or becoming an irritant to them.
We made deaf jokes in the family. “Oh, about quarter past three,” could be inserted randomly into the middle of any conversation. As she got older, the hearing aid technology improved, but she still needed a rig in her apartment to make the lamps flash when the phone rang.
My grandmother was always a little eccentric, given to random tangents. I wonder now how much her hearing issues were related to who she was. Don’t get me wrong—she was a loving, goodhearted, wonderful lady, and I wouldn’t have changed her for the world. But I do wonder what she would have been like with perfect hearing her whole life.
I’m lucky. The doctor gave me some swell drugs, and as I write this, my hearing is mostly back. They have days when people pretend to be blind or wheelchair bound to get a real feeling for how it changes the world. I’m thinking giving everyone a day with some earplugs might be a good exercise as well.

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