Monday, June 06, 2011

Misconceptions about Hearing-Impairments: My Pet Peeve

By Benjamin Skipper

I know this has hardly been mentioned before, but for my entire life I've had a bad hearing-impairment, moderate in my right ear and severe in my left. I hate it. It really gets in the way of me living my life as smoothly as I'd like to, no matter how long I live with it. It's frequently difficult to hear people in certain settings, like when dishes are clattering on the counter at my restaurant job, and has even led to me developing me a speech impediment which I was made fun of severely for as a child. More irritating yet, my impairment is sensorineural, which means the ear nerve connected to my brain is damaged, so modern technology has no remedy for my situation as of yet. I really want to buy high-end hearing-aids in the future, but for now they're super expensive and out of my budget, even with medical insurance coverage, so unfortunately it'll have to be a long-term goal.

For the hell of it I thought I'd clear up a couple misconceptions about the nature of hearing-impairments that I've seen people make quite often, as it has made for some embarrassing and even infuriating confrontations. Namely, I'd like to address something about the nature of hearing-impairments themselves and hearing-aid technology.

First off, having a hearing-impairment does not necessarily mean that a person hears less in a balanced, fixed amount. It's more sophisticated than that. More often than not, people with impairments have more or less trouble hearing portions of the pitch spectrum, so it's not like we hear less as if you've turned down the volume on the television; rather, it's like you've turned down, or even eliminated certain pitches from sounds. As precise as the nature of the impairment can be, one person could be deaf only to severely high pitches still within the range of human hearing and function as if their hearing was fine, and another may have trouble with such a wide variation of points in the pitch spectrum that they may have incredible difficulty listening to and verbalizing spoken language.

It can be incredibly sophisticated, right down the point where the person has difficulty with only certain words or even parts of words. I myself can hear the /th/ and /s/ phonetic sounds, but it's impossible for me to comprehend any difference between them, so words like "sink" and "think" sound exactly the same. I can only distinguish them by the context of the sentence they're used in.

This means that such as thing as simply speaking louder is not often likely to help things. The only way for a person with a pitch-specific impairment to hear better is for them to have those specific troubled pitches emphasized, so if you magnify your voice it's likely to help the situation little, if any, or make it worse if you change your pitches by speaking louder. I myself am largely deaf on the high end of the spectrum and have intense difficulty with high pitches on the edge of my capacity, so speaking louder only helps at a distance; mostly, I just need a person to enunciate. Many people may have hearing-damage to the extent that their comprehension to the entire spectrum is compromised, so in that scenario louder speaking would help, but I don't think it's that common, at least when considering the entire population of people with hearing difficulties.

Secondly, this as a corollary means that either one of two types of hearing-aids will help a hearing-impaired person, and contrary to popular conception it isn't the most common type of hearing-aid, the one that simply magnifies all sounds. If a person has difficulty with only a certain part of the pitch spectrum, then a hearing-aid that magnifies all sounds will be useless. Useless. So please, don't suggest to such a person to run right out and get that without considering the specifics: At best it's ignorant and rude, and at worst it'll cause that person to waste a lot of money. I, in fact, had that kind of hearing-aid throughout most of my childhood, and it worked jack squat. I wore it only because I had to. Because my hearing-impairment resides on the high-end, that means a "regular" hearing-aid is going to magnify the sounds I can already hear at normal levels, so it'll hurt my ears and negate any effect of high pitch magnification. I hated that transition in the morning, when I first put my devices in and had to adjust to how damn loud everything was. Wind whistled like a hurricane, paper crinkled like sheet metal, and even just the plain atmosphere sounded like flowing water. It was almost overwhelming, and it didn't help me hear an iota. I stopped wearing my hearing-aids in my mid-teens when someone asked me why I always took them out during conversations, which pointed out to me that I recognized they didn't improve the functioning of my life. The weeks that immediately followed my quitting that device people noticed how much easier it was for me to hear, ironically.

For people like me, with a pitch specific impairment, a different, much more expensive device is needed: digital hearing-aids. Last time I received an estimate I was told they range from two to six thousand dollars, though are probably cheaper now, and have the high virtue of being able to magnify certain pitches while leaving others static, meaning I could have the high pitches emphasized while the low ones are untouched. That's what I want and need, but cannot afford right now. Most of the hearing-impaired population probably can't afford it, so don't insult us by asking us to pop in a conventional device when it likely may not suit our needs. It was positively useless for me.

I wanted to clear up these misconceptions because I've been annoyed in the past when people spoke loudly to me upon hearing about my impairment, and infuriated when told to go get a hearing-aid. You should ask how you can accommodate each specific individual who has made explicit they have such problems instead of resorting to the concrete-bound remedies given rise to by the misconceptions above. In dealing with me, the best thing to do is to stay on my right-hand side and speak clearly, repeating when necessary. Nothing more, nothing less.

Are any of my readers hearing-impaired? If so, do you have any pet peeves you'd like to air yourself?

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