Seton Hill student shares experiences on hearing loss

Hearing aids can cost up to $3,500 per aid. Hearing aid batteries typically last two weeks and can cost from $3-9 per pack. Photo by B.Malley/Setonian.

My name’s Bridget and I have bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. Sound complicated? Let’s break it down:

Bilateral hearing loss – this means that I have hearing loss in both ears, which has always been the case for me. Over time, however, my left ear has gotten worse. I now joke that if you add all my hearing loss together, it means I’ve got a grand total of one functioning ear.

Sensorineural hearing loss – this means that the root of my hearing loss is in the nervous system and the auditory nerve rather than in the middle ear. Most noise- and age-related hearing loss – the kind you see in older populations – occurs in the middle ear. The deeper you go into the ear, the more tangled the web becomes.

So yes – I’m deaf. I can also be described as hard-of-hearing, though I wouldn’t describe myself as Deaf. Some clarification: These first two terms (hard-of-hearing and deaf) refer mostly to hearing loss itself, whereas Deaf with a capital D refers to those who are also culturally deaf and participate in Deaf communities. Hard-of-hearing generally implies a lesser level of hearing loss whereas deaf is closer to a near-total loss of hearing. These are only loose guidelines, though – what deaf and hard-of-hearing people call themselves varies on a person-to-person basis.

So what does this mean in reality, apart from me making lots of deaf jokes? Well, in terms of daily living, it just means I have different strategies that I use and different things that I do or don’t take for granted. For example, listening to the radio in the car has never appealed to me. Why would it? It’s just sounds – not even chords or lyrics or drum beats most of the time. These sounds compete with the grumbling car engine, the wind rushing outside, the rattle of whatever’s in the back seat.

My point is that I cannot isolate the sounds I hear. I can’t mentally tune out the background noise – with hearing aids, it all gets amplified. Sounds become sounds and not words, sentences, coherent structures to be used for communication.

A special alarm clock can be programmed to wake me up by shaking the bed or flashing the lights. Photo by B.Malley/Setonian.

The reason for this is due to the difference between hearing sound and processing sound. Hearing sound is only step one; it’s like being handed a bunch of loose puzzle pieces. Processing sound is when those pieces get put together, and requires several areas of the brain to work together. I still do process sound, of course – it just takes a lot longer and a lot more effort than it would for a hearing person.

This is the case in my earlier example of listening to music on the radio. Though my brain receives the sound, the pieces are stuck together to other unrelated pieces – a guitar riff that’s glued to the sound of a honking horn, and I can’t pull them apart in order to see the separate puzzles they make. Instead, I rely heavily on visual data to supplement auditory data. This way, I have another, easier-to-complete puzzle that helps me identify the pieces that are missing from my aural image.

Now let me point out that the one thing human beings are better at than anything else is adaptation. Hearing loss is my normal. I don’t have to adjust to it all again every morning when I wake up because it’s the only kind of normal I’ve ever known.

What life with hearing loss entails is finding strategies for functioning in a hearing world. Not liking to listen to the radio doesn’t mean I’m not a fan of music. No! Instead I listen to music on my terms, in quiet places with the lyrics in front of me so that I have a thread I follow – a map of sorts through the music.

Likewise, in crowded cafeterias I pick my seat at the table carefully. The head of the table’s usually a good option since it means I can see everyone easily and can therefore speechread easily. It also means that my right ear (the good one) is closer to the majority of the conversation.

Using earbuds to listen to music? Doesn’t work. Instead, I use this microphone system which streams the music to my hearing aids. Photo by B.Malley/Setonian.

Strategy is only a tool, though; it can’t account for everything. Hard-of-hearing/deaf/Deaf people have little flexibility when it comes to living in a hearing world; asking for help is a necessity more than it is a choice.

Such as: There are pathways to getting accommodations in the workforce, but at your local restaurant? At a bar or a mall or in a hearing friend’s home? There are no notetakers or amplification systems in a crowded cafeteria. You will not get the chance to pull apart the tangled threads of a multi-person conversation until seconds or minutes or even hours later, when the sounds finally resolve themselves into coherent words (or when someone flat-out tells you what you missed). Unless you have hearing aids or have friends who are willing to interpret for you, you may well find yourself locked out of your own life.

I talk about all this not to make hearing people feel guilty and not to ask for a pat on the back, some kind of congratulations. This article isn’t meant to be educational, either; my experience is different from that of other deaf people, just as the experience of one person with glasses is different from that of every other person with a visual impairment.

I talk about this so that the curtain may be drawn back just a little, so that hard-of-hearing and deaf people may become more than mysterious figures viewed from afar. That’s part of the reason why I make so many jokes, too – this is real, this is normal, this is a pain in the butt just like most of existence is. It’s ridiculous and tough and funny; it takes work. It takes an occasional nap.

And it’s my life.

Interested in seeing what hearing loss is like in different situations? Click here to try out an online hearing loss similar.

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