Friday 23 December 2016

The Bottom of the Swimming Pool

I had a letter in the post today from Louise Goldsmith, a 21 year old who spoke so eloquently and soulfully it pulled at my heart. I don't know Louise but I can relate to her story. She has had severe hearing loss since she was seven years old and the letter is a candid account of this 'hidden disability' as she calls it, how she'd like to say her lack of hearing hasn’t adversely affected her life in any way, but, sadly, she isn't able to do this.

It's an insight into a world I know.

I'm not sure my hearing loss is as profound as Louise's – yet – and it certainly wasn't as bad when I was in my twenties, but it is a constant stress. I'm helped by amazing technology, not least my discrete Bluetooth hearing aids (I wrote about their maiden outing, here), the crystal clear headphones for the TV and the addition of subtitles. And I thank my lucky stars that I live in an age when I can carry out my entire communication through messaging of various sorts without ever having to put any of us through the ordeal of having to speak on the phone. Cochlear implants and Bone Anchored Hearing Aids are a possibility for the future and thus I live in hope that I won't become the little old lady in the corner whom everyone ignores, because it's easier.

Nonetheless, it's isolating not being able to hear and it affects every part of life – work and play. It's exhausting when every conversation is a missing word quiz and depressing when people think you are stupid and that you don't get the joke you didn't hear.

But it isn't all bad.

I have particularly noticed recently, probably because my hearing has plummeted lately, that my family have strategies to help me join in and that these have become automatic. It means that in my home, as long as I have my hearing aids, I don't have too much difficulty communicating. Reading Louise's flier, I thought it might be useful to share some of these tips before the typical large group, multi-generational, terrifyingly full of background noise festive party season is fully upon us. I hope it might be helpful to those who hear well and those who don't.

Here goes!

Please don't SHOUT! I totally understand how frustrating it is to be with someone whose every second sentence is, 'Sorry, I missed that,' and I understand the instinct to raise our voice. However, for many of us, it isn't that a voice is quiet so much as the speech is muffled.

The Clangers Poster
To try to give a picture of what it's like, imagine yourself tucking into your Christmas dinner whilst attempting to converse with your neighbour, all at the bottom of a swimming pool. New Year's Eve party? Add the Clangers to the bottom of the pool, dispersed around you, all talking loudly in sounds you can't understand but conspiring to drown out your neighbour nonetheless. If the person with whom you were trying to communicate simply shouted, it wouldn't make any difference to your comprehension. If however, they turned to face you and really enunciated their words, using more pronounced facial gestures, then you'd have a chance of understanding.

The trouble with shouting, apart from the fact it often doesn't help, is that it's really not very nice to be shouted at - particularly when everyone else is speaking at normal pitch. Because with the shout comes the facial expression: the screwed up, pained face. I know the intention is not to make the interlocutor feel awful but it makes me want to crawl away. After all, the conversationalist is clearly intensely annoyed (people only shout when they're cross, don't they?) and you are responsible for ruining their day, you and your sub-standard hearing - so why would you choose to hang around? If somebody shouts, I bluff that I've heard and feign a sudden need for the Ladies. 

Alter rather than Repeat: Often, people who struggle with their hearing miss the first word, or a particular word, and can't get the gist of the sentence because of that. Sometimes, the conversation can be saved simply through repeating it directly to the person in question but if this doesn't work, paraphrasing might be all that's needed to get around the troublesome word.

Face your Partner: For all of us, not just the hard of hearing, understanding speech is about so much more than the actual words spoken. We glean the sense of it through context and the 'music and the dance'. I remember a first hearing consultant saying to me shortly before I wore hearing aids that when he looked at my audiogram - a graph which represents the picture of an individual's ability to hear different sounds - he couldn't understand how I could possibly function but, he was quick to add, he saw this all the time. He said that it was a reminder to us that communication is about much more than words. In fact, it's oft quoted that 93% of what we hear is communicated through everything but the words. According to a certain Professor Mehrabian in 1971, 55% of communication is in the body language, 38% is in the tone of voice with only 7% being the words spoken.  

Now, the exact figures have since been rebuked but I think there is truth in the message. Certainly, that first consultant was convinced that was how people with hearing loss could manage surprisingly well. I would also suggest that people who are hard of hearing whilst perhaps not so good at hearing changes in tone of voice, might be even better at reading body language than this stat states.

And living proof of this is that I understand so much better if I face the person with whom I'm speaking. I don't officially lip read (although I'm about to learn and am ridiculously excited about the potential for my new skill) but matching the lips to the muffled sounds is often all I need.

Don't Walk Away! For the same reason, I wouldn’t even attempt to have any meaningful conversation with your back to whom you're speaking as you walk away.

Come and Ask! Likewise, my family have largely learnt that there is little point shouting from another room when they've been doing 'boys-or-teen-looking', in the hope I'll come scurrying to find said not-really-lost item. Even if I can hear the call, I won't know who or where it's coming from nor what it's about. If I'm really needed, my family have to come to me.

Well, we have to have some perks, don’t we…?

It does matter: And finally, and oh so importantly, please, please don't say, It Doesn't Matter. Because it really, really does. What might seem a seemingly inconsequential throwaway comment to you, is actually the stuff which makes the world go around. It's the context, it's the relationship, and nothing is more depressing than being told that what everybody else heard, isn't important enough to repeat to you. It's isolating and the more it happens, the more I become that little lady in the corner of the room, in the corner of life.

My hearing could be worse, I could be profoundly deaf, but it is a problem. For me, and everybody with hearing loss, please practise your very best diction this Christmas and look into our eyes when you speak.

That would be our very best Christmas present and an enormous helping hand through 2017.

PS There is good news for poor hearing. Increased deafness goes hand in hand with an ageing population and scientists and businesses have taken up the challenge. Breakthroughs are coming thick and fast and I am very hopeful for my hearing future and that of everyone currently struggling. Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID) is a charity helping to find cures. If you haven't sent Christmas cards this year and keep meaning to get round to a charity donation instead, please consider supporting Action on Hearing Loss. More information here  

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