Hearing Impairment is my Superpower

Own your loss, and be open about it with other people. Help others understand what they need to do to help you cope.

Did you know that a lot of people are REALLY lousy communicators? No, it’s true! I’m sorry to break it to you. I, on the other hand have a superpower—hearing impairment.

Communicating Better

How does hearing impairment make me a better communicator? Well, in my particular case, I got lucky. Every “superhero” needs a master from which to learn how to wield their superpower, right? When I was growing up, I had access to an amazing hearing specialist at my school. She was my Professor X. This woman was unique—truly, one-of-a-kind. She was my teacher, hero, father-figure, mother-figure, and counselor. She was a fantastic communicator, and had an uncanny ability to tell me exactly what I needed to hear at the right time. She taught me a lot of coping mechanisms to help me be a better listener. Looking back on what I learned from her, I feel that these mechanisms ought to be basic life skills taught to everyone in high school. I feel sorry for all the “normies” that missed out.

Despite not being able to hear well, I am a better listener because of it. When people are talking, I have to listen with full attention or I will not be able to hear them. I must look at their face—specifically, their mouths. I do an okay job of looking people in the eye, but I notice that if I stare right into the eyes of whoever I’m talking to, I have a hard time hearing them! It’s like closed captioning. I’ve gotten used to looking at the whole screen while quickly reading the words along with the dialog. When listening to a speaker, I look at the whole face, in the same way I do when I’m watching a movie.

You know how Superman has a weakness? Kryptonite? Mine is definitely speakers with strong accents. People with accents shape words differently on their lips, and the cadence of their speech is unexpected. I depend on “normal” speech patterns in conversation because it helps me perform short-hand and parse together what the speaker is saying after they’ve uttered the words. I’ve noticed that if I am immersed into a culture with an unfamiliar accent, my ears do eventually adjust. For example, I lived in Ireland for six months. By the end of my time there, I was “translating” the accents to my parents who had come to visit for two weeks.

A lot of people don’t realize this, but when they say something to me, and I don’t understand what was just said, I might give the speaker a blank, wide-eyed look. My hearing specialist taught me that it’s often a knee-jerk reaction to say “what?” or “huh?” immediately. Your conversee (is that a word?) will be less frustrated if you can fight that urge, and take a second to re-listen. When you get the blank look, I am replaying the cadence of what was just said in my head. I’m trying to determine if I did in fact hear you after all. This saves the speaker from having to repeat themselves altogether.

Sometimes repetition is necessary. There’s a second coping mechanism I’ve learned: if I hear “A” and then hear “C” but I missed “B”… You can simply repeat A and C back to the person, admit that you didn’t catch B, and if they could please fill in the blank for you? This is nice because it saves the speaker frustration from having to repeat everything they said, and lets them know that you were listening, you only missed some of it.

A third trick I’ve learned: deduction. Sometimes I’ll hear “A” and then hear “C” but I missed “B”… In cases like these I can try to bridge the gap between A and C and fill in my own blank. Practicing this on a regular basis has made me an analytical thinker. However, even analysts can get things wrong. I might jump to a conclusion that is so totally wrong that I embarrass myself. B is not actually B! Usually others find this quite funny. While yes, it is funny–I’m still a little bashful of course. Having to confront this on a semi-regular basis is humbling, and I’ve gotten used to it. Humility is an important life lesson that will help you get along with people, have a sense of humor, and even become a leader.

One unusual side-effect that hearing impairment has on the hard-of-hearing community is how it impacts each person’s behavior. For example, some with a hearing impairment will be soft-spoken and withdrawn. They do this to compensate for not being able to hear what is said, so they can’t participate in the conversation. They’re too embarrassed to speak up, so they fade into the background—we call this type “passive”. There is another type of person that will overcompensate for not being able to hear their own voice when they are speaking. They talk louder and come across as confrontational and even angry—we call this type “aggressive”. Depending on the situation I’ve been in both camps, but according to my specialist, I tended to be more aggressive. This didn’t play itself out too well for me in middle school. I felt ostracized by my schoolmates and I was mystified as to the reason. My specialist helped me reflect on what I say by playing something over in my head before I actually say it. She also helped me manage my tone and inflection. Her ultimate goal was to help her students manage their hearing loss assertively. Own your loss, and be open about it with other people. Help others understand what they need to do to help you cope. What’s awesome about learning this as a youth is I have a perfect excuse to speak up and ask for clarification. I can “blame it on” my hearing loss, whereas other people don’t have that handy excuse. While my middle school efforts to fit in initially gave me a lot of self-doubt, I’ve continued to practice the skills I learned from “Professor X”. I have learned to handle tough conversations diplomatically and assertively.

If you put all of this together and add in my profession as a UX designer–now we really have a powerful combination. I have the ability to listen fully, communicate clearly, and have the humility to accept fairly-given design critique without taking it personally. Is this yet another way my hearing loss has impacted my life for the better?

Some of this musing might be putting the cart before the horse. Am I a good listener and analytical thinker because of my hearing impairment? Or is that way my brain and personality was built? I guess I’ll never know… maybe some of both.

Additional Hearing Impairment Benefits

Aside from learning important communication skills, he’s a few more unexpected benefits of hearing loss:

Sleep. I can sleep through the night in perfect silence. I take my hearing aids out, and it’s quiet. There are no garbage trucks and loud motorcycles at 5 AM to disturb my blissful slumber. With the advent of cell phones, waking up on time is easier than ever because they include a vibrating alarm clock. Before mobile phones, I had to purchase a specialized alarm clock for the deaf/hard-of-hearing. Thanks for that, technology!

Crying Baby Son. Keep in mind, that I did not do this often. When my son was JUST born, and I was at home all alone on maternity leave, he went through this phase where all he would do is cry, cry, and cry. It just broke my heart because I’d already done the “feed, change diaper, play, sleep” dance. Nothing worked, and he’d cry that terrible lusty newborn cry. (Parents, you know the one.) Yes–I turned my hearing aids off so I could give myself a little break. I’d still hold him real tight, but I could relax my body a little bit because I couldn’t hear the crying. I’d alternate on and off like that five minutes at a time until it passed. Definitely helped me keep my sanity.

No Noisy Neighbors. I have awesome neighbors all the time—no one is noisy. Cube neighbors at work, no problem. Dorm living? Awesome—did dorm life for whole 5 years in college. Apartments? Fine by me. House? No different than the rest!

Noise-Cancelling Headphones. I have never had to drop hundreds of dollars on fancy noise-cancelling headphones because they are built into my hearing aids. My devices have a setting called “T-Switch” which basically turns my hearing aids to custom-ear plugs, obviously silencing everything around me. The t-switch activates a magnetic coil that picks up the audio from a simple pair of $8 ear buds or telephones. I hear music and audio through my headphones with perfect clarity (minus the impairment that my hearing aids can’t correct, of course). When I have the funds to do it, my next pair of hearing aids will be Bluetooth which means I can just cut out the headphones altogether. Amazing!

Loud Bars and Rock Concerts. When I’m out to eat in a noisy restaurant, I can turn my hearing aids all the way down which blends the loud background noises together and also allows the devices to pick up the conversations happening right in front of me. That, combined with my lip-reading skills can often mean that I do better than most normal-hearing people in loud settings. For rock concerts (think Jon Bon Jovi), I always turn my hearing aids completely off. Obviously this is great for protecting what little hearing I have. Believe me, the concert is loud enough, I can hear/feel it just fine.

Reading. I am an fast reader, and I attribute this to watching TV with closed captioning all the time. When watching movies, I can hear everything that is being said. I am told by “normies” that they miss a lot in movies without the closed captioning. If you’re interested in trying it out yourself, please be aware that closed captioning can be super distracting at first. It takes about six months of using it consistently before you don’t even notice it anymore. I have “converted” all normal-hearing members of my family to use closed captioning in their households. Plus, if you have little kids, it will help them with their reading skills in school 🙂

Old Age. I ripped off the hearing aid band-aid before anyone else had to in their old age. I know it can be humiliating and expensive to get hearing aids. It’s like an admission that you’re getting older, your body is breaking down, and you are powerless to stop it. Please—for your quality of life, and your mental health, take care of your hearing while you’re young, and don’t be afraid to get hearing aids when you’re older. Being able to hear music, birds, nature, and conversations is so much better for you and everyone around you.

Auditoriums. Special benefits at auditoriums! Headphones!

Gossip. I’m not interested in gossip or eavesdropping. I don’t try to overhear conversations taking place the next table over, it’s a useless exercise. This makes it easier to stay out of workplace politics. As a result of this, I’ve learned to more attentive to how people actually conduct themselves as opposed to what I might hear about them from someone else.

Observations on Hearing Impairment

Here are a few more general reflections about my hearing loss that aren’t necessarily benefits, but observations:

Auditory Learner. Ironically, I am an auditory learner, preferring to listen orators speak. I listen to lots of podcasts and YouTube videos on all topics. I take notes and learn from them. Despite the fact that I can read very well, I have to make a sincere effort to read a book. When I read, which I seldom do, I prefer a more conversational writing style.

Music. I cherish music very much. Despite what people think, being hard of hearing has absolutely nothing to do with tone deafness. I can tell when strings or voices are out of tune; it’s a learned skill. You can hear the oscillating tone move back and forth when it’s not in tune. When it’s really out of tune, it vibrates faster, when it’s really close it vibrates slower, and when it’s in tune it sounds perfectly flat. My hearing loss has not diminished my enthusiasm for pursuing music as a hobby. It might be a different story if I had chosen a career in music. Thankfully, I’m a UX designer.

Raising Articulate Kids. As I write this, I have a three-year old son. I’m not sure if people are just being gracious or genuine, but I am routinely told he is very well-spoken for being only three. While he is very smart, I have a theory that some of his language skills are due to the fact that he needs to speak clearly in order for me to understand him! Does this cause him to be especially clear for his age? Maybe. 🙂

Offending Me. People are sometimes afraid of offending me or saying something insensitive about my hearing. I find it strange that people are so careful. To me, wearing hearing aids is not that different from wearing glasses. Maybe it’s because it’s not as common? Know this—it is extremely difficult to offend me. I know the difference between someone being a bully, and someone who just kinda let something slip. When nice, well-meaning people say something silly, they get super embarrassed and apologetic. In today’s victim culture, I think there’s even a little bit of fear that I might use it against them. Don’t worry about it, man. You are fine.

Commonly Asked Questions

I know people are curious, but most are too shy to ask these common questions outright. See “Offending Me” above. People are understandably afraid of making me feel uncomfortable, so typically I’ll volunteer this information during times where it might be relevant in a conversation.

One of my hearing tests from 1996. The yellow box is where the speech sounds are. HA are my regular hearing aids. FM is a special device I used only at school. The teachers wore a microphone that transmitted their voice directly to me–like wearing headphones.

Reading the audiogram: frequency is high and low pitches.
Q: How bad is your hearing?
A: It is considered to be “severe”. I cannot function normally without my hearing aids. I’ve heard this particular hearing loss referred to as a “cookie bite”. The graph shows my hearing to be a little higher on both the high and low ends of the spectrum, however it dips into a “U” shape in the middle. This is important because the middle part of the graph is where conversational volume and delicate speech sounds reside. Basically, without amplification from hearing aids, I would not be able to hear any of subtleties of speech. One common side-affect of this is speech impediments. I saw a speech therapist very early—since age three.
Reading the audiogram: intensity is how loud or soft the sound is.

I didn’t get fitted with hearing aids until I was five. I missed the first 5 years of my life–critical years of learning language–without proper amplification. This has permanently affected my speech. I worked really hard at correcting it in speech therapy all the way through grade school (K-12). People tell me it isn’t too bad though. They say they’ve gotten used it, and it sounds like I’m Irish or something. Hey, I’ll take it!

Reading the audiogram: just how bad is it, doc? Solidly in the moderate to severe range.
My hearing loss is also (thankfully) stable. I took tests every so-often as a kid, and I recently had it re-tested as an adult, and the audiogram is consistent—a huge relief. I love music so much, it would break my heart to never hear it again. I often tell people I would much rather go blind than go deaf.

Q: How did you lose your hearing?
My hearing loss is congenital, but it is not genetic. There is something about the conditions of my mom’s pregnancy–I am told -RH factor, combined with being third-born, put me at risk. I was also born 2 months early to help mitigate that. Were my ears damaged by mom’s antibodies? Hard to say. I asked a doctor about it recently, and she said that wasn’t a side-effect she had heard of for -RH.

Mechanically, my hearing loss is in the inner ear. Your ear has three zones: outer, middle, and inner. The outer ear is what everyone sees–your earlobe. The middle ear is home to the famously tiny bone in your body, the stapes. The inner ear is your cochlea and this is the organ right before your brain. Sound travels in and causes the tiny little “hairs” to wiggle. I’ve been told that my “hairs” are stunted–too short to wiggle freely which results in improper interpretation of sound to the brain.

I remember trying to mentally open my ears as wide as they could go, concentrating deeply on the sounds. When I didn’t hear the beep, I always felt a little bit concerned. Those were the times in my life in which the silence was truly deafening….

Q: How much of your hearing can your hearing aids correct?
A: This answer takes some explaining. When I was a kid, I took lots of different hearing tests. All of the tests are given in a sound-proof booth with an administrator on the other side of the glass. The first set of tests are beeps and vibrations. For the beep test, you wear a headset without hearing aids and raise your hand when you hear the beep. They test each ear independently. I remember trying to mentally open my ears as wide as they could go, concentrating deeply on the sounds. When I didn’t hear the beep, I always felt a little bit concerned. Those were the times in my life in which the silence was truly deafening….

For the vibration test, there’s a second kind of headset that you wear against the base of your skull that delivers a vibration. You raise your hand when you hear/feel the vibration.

The administrator is placing X’s and O’s on an audiogram (spreadsheet) that plots out the “losses” of the left and right ears respectively. You can see from my chart that my hearing loss is the same in both ears. The audiologist might also decide to test the beeps with hearing aids in to measure the effectiveness of the amplification, which you can see in the chart above. The chart is from 1996, so the “HA” results are for an older “analog” hearing device. I received a new pair of “digital” hearing aids in 1999. These were weird because they were unbelievably smart. The audiologist could program them to only amplify the sounds that I needed help hearing. So when I first put them on, everything sounded so quiet… when in fact they were no longer amplifying the obviously loud things I didn’t need to hear! It took a few weeks, maybe even months to fully acclimate to them. Digital hearing aids also had white-noise detection feature that algorithmically senses regular, low-pitches like static or murmurs and reduces their amplification, allowing the wearer to focus on the relevant sounds.

The second set of tests are verbal with hearing aids in. The administrator will read a list of words off a sheet of paper under four scenarios that get progressively harder. I am told to repeat back the word I thought I heard. Here are the four tests:

  1. with mouth exposed,
  2. with mouth exposed and “conversational white noise” playing in the background,
  3. with mouth obscured,
  4. with their mouth obscured and “conversational white noise” playing in the background.

The first test in this series is a breeze. It is extremely easy for me and I can probably get 100% of the words. The second part of the series I think I can get about 80-90% right. By the time we get around to covering the administrators mouth my accuracy precipitously declines. At the end I can hear almost none of the words. If I don’t know what the administrator said, I’ll just say whatever I think I might have heard–I imagine I probably said some pretty crazy words! It’s a miracle that none of the administrators EVER laughed out loud. I’m sure that is a professional skill they all have to master because I know the person taking the test would not want to feel like they are being laughed at!

Q: Have you considered implants?
A: Short answer is “definitely not”. It’s been a few years since I researched cochlear implants, but I don’t think the technology has advanced to the point where I would be a candidate. Cochlear implants are for people who are deaf. It’s a tool to help deliver some auditory information to the brain rather than nothing at all. The hearing I have is much higher resolution than what a cochlear implant could offer. If you think of it like the picture at right, my hearing is just “blurry” and I can’t hear detail. Cochlear implants can only deliver a handful of “colors” ranging from black to white. The crispness may actually be better than what I am depicting in my picture, but the point is that the sound is just not as good as what I have already.

Q: What do you hear when you take your hearing aids out?
A: I tell people that it sounds like having a pillow over your head all the time. I can hear you talking, especially deeper male voices, but I can’t understand what you’re saying unless I am looking right at you. I can lip-read though, so if my hearing devices are not in, and it’s quiet, I can probably pick up the gist. But if you have a lot to say, then wait until I put my hearing aids back in. I can hear deep, loud, booming noises. Footsteps, thunder, and bassy music.

So that’s what it’s like to be hearing impaired! You can see that while it does have some drawbacks, I really have come to embrace my hearing loss. I think it has helped shape me into who I am, my interests, my personality, and even helped my career. Plus, aren’t you totally jealous of my perfectly silent sleep? I know I would be. I love to sleep.

Featured image credit : Pixabay

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