Observations From A Partially Deaf World
I can hear the sounds of the words, but sometimes, they don’t make any sense.
I am flashing on a day in my life a few years ago. I was in the office of my hearing aid dispenser, taking a hearing test. I was there with my wife and my two daughters. We all took tests that day and they did fine with exceptional results. But for me, I can recall what I was told after my test. I am partially and profoundly deaf, something I’ve lived with since I was born. This we already knew. What I also learned that day was that I have an auditory disorder that impairs my ability to process speech. That was new to me.
I am profoundly deaf in one ear. I am partially deaf in the other ear. I only wear one hearing aid because it just didn’t seem worth the expense and effort to use a hearing aid in the profoundly deaf. One hearing aid is enough for the good side. When my kids whisper to me in my left ear, I say, “Wrong ear. Try the other one.”
When I watch TV, I use subtitles. No one else in my family likes subtitles. So when I watch TV, I generally watch it alone. I prefer watching TV alone so that I hear all the dialog. With subtitles, my reading voice gives me perfect diction. I watch TV alone because I don’t want to be distracted from the subtitles and I don’t like distractions because I expend so much effort processing what I heard to make sense of it. When people talk during the show, that frustrates me.
My wife is from Vietnam. One of the benefits that I have in our communications is that she makes an extra effort to pronounce her words right. Most of the time, she speaks loudly and clearly. She doesn’t seem to mind repeating herself, too. But it sure seems like she wants to punish me when she refuses to repeat what I didn’t hear the first time.
My whole family speaks loudly and clearly. I don’t know if it’s because they’ve had to repeat themselves to me or if they just naturally project their voices. But I have had the benefit of growing up with people who spoke loudly and clearly to me. And still, I tend to find reading and writing to be the preferred means of communicating something important to me.
Left to my own devices, most of my days are spent reading. I love to read because I never miss a word. My reading voice speaks with perfect clarity, perfect pronunciation. There is no trail off when I encounter humor. I hear every word. I add my own emphasis. I can go back and reread something that I didn’t understand, look it up, and move on. I read without risk of hearing the word, “nevermind”.
This is one of the reasons why I am so drawn to the internet. I can read and read and read. I just never get tired of reading if the material is interesting. I will read an article before watching a video or listening to a podcast. You could say that my primary modality is reading or sight. I know what I like.
Today, I was asked by my wife to watch TV with the kids instead of retreating downstairs to watch what I wanted to watch, with subtitles and with speakers that actually delivered bass. Most of my hearing loss is in the higher frequencies, so I lose the consonants in the words. I need the bass frequencies to pick up the sounds of the words. So I watched the cartoons with my kids using the tinny TV speakers, and the high pitched character voices. I got so frustrated that I gave up on the dialog and made sense of the plot from the visual cues. And then I retreated to my bedroom.
As I lay in bed, brooding, I realized that it is not that I lack the desire to watch cartoons with my kids. I lacked the compatibility to enjoy the same media in the same way as they do. I was so disturbed by this, that I had to write this article. I needed to grieve my loss of hearing again.
What am I grieving about? I was born in 1964 during the German Measles epidemic. My mother was infected by her unenlightened brother while carrying me. The result? A cataract in my left eye, leaving me blind in that eye and impaired hearing in both ears. The cataract has since been removed allowing light into my left eye, but without a lense. The only option to improve my hearing was hearing aids, which I’ve worn since 3rd grade. So I’ve been partially deaf all of my life.
Note to expecting mothers: I’d be very circumspect during this coronavirus epidemic. Please take care as it is possible that even if you are asymptomatic, a coronavirus infection may place your unborn child at risk.
Years ago, I was driving my car with a friend and he told me that I have the equalizer on my stereo set very weird. But that worked for me and I was happy with it. And since then, I realized that I will never hear the Blue Danube played by a full orchestra the way they hear it. I will never hear the highs and lows of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the way they hear it.
I am constantly annoyed by the way that action movies have a giant dynamic volume range for audio. I turn up the volume for quiet dialog. But when the whispers before the boom require me to increase the volume, I have to be mindful of the family. Note to the MPAA: When something goes boom, I get it. I know that it’s loud. Please compress the volume range so that I can turn it up to hear the quiet dialog without rattling the dishes in the kitchen when things blow up onscreen.
The challenges I encounter to hear my world make me especially prone to writing. When I was a boy, I had numerous arguments with my sisters. They could always talk faster than me, they could change the subject faster than me. And they won arguments nearly every time with me. I don’t think I ever won an argument with them. I realized that my deficit wasn’t my logic, it was my ability to process the words that I heard and to respond in kind. I could not keep up, so I took an interest in writing.
I’ve had a gift for writing since I was a boy. I hated writing as a boy, but still managed good grades for my essays. I just didn’t like correcting for mistakes and starting all over again. This love/hate relationship with writing persisted through high school.
Then, I got a personal computer as a young adult and learned to use a word processor and a printer. Once armed, I found the utility of writing in a few college classes that I have taken, earning As and A+’s with nearly every essay I wrote. I loved outlining an article, researching the points, paraphrasing what I’ve learned and synthesizing disparate parts to make a whole. I owe much of that joy to the word processor, which made writing essays a breeze for me. In fact, that is the innovation that really opened up the world of writing to me.
I have written a legal brief on my own for a lawyer and edited a few others for him. I’ve written more than 300 Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act Requests to various agencies in the federal government, and I’ve won every appeal. I’ve written letters to the editor since the 1980s. I’ve written for a few newspapers, websites and my own blogs. And I’ve written letters to my friends and family from time to time. In my current occupation as a software engineer, I write emails every workday, explaining my work, what happened and the action plan. I have written persuasively to my manager who has shared my writing with her managers.
All of these outlets have shaped my experience of writing as my preferred method of communication. In every case, I write without regard to the outcome. If I send you a letter or an email, you are free to read or not to read it. I’ve already said what I needed to say, without interruption, without someone butting in, without someone changing the subject on me in mid-sentence. Writing has helped me to define who I am.
Reading is my primary input. I read for inspiration. I read for information and the dopamine. I read to understand, for clarity, for satisfaction and for the joy of revelation.
I do have conversations with the people in my life, but I do so with care and respect. I often have to ask people to repeat themselves, and I tend to gather with people who speak loudly, clearly and who are willing to repeat themselves.
When we share a meal, I chew my food and listen. I don’t say much because I’m so focused on processing what was said. I spend more time parsing what was said than I do thinking about what I am going to say. You could say that I’m a very active listener. I’m asking questions, solving for X the missing word. Often the subject changes before I can respond. And often, my needs are not addressed, unless I address them later in writing.
This is just a quick summary of life in a partially deaf world. It is mostly quiet in this world. When I go to sleep, I rest my head on the good ear. When I want to hear, I put on my hearing aid, and I wear it nearly every waking hour. The soft light sounds of water running, the rain on the roof, and the refrigerator are lost on me without my hearing aid. I even have auditory hallucinations, where I sort of make up the sounds as if I heard them. With my hearing aid, the sounds of the world are apparent to me.
Because the world seems so quiet around me, I know that I can always go inside for peace. When I am in a room with other people, not talking, that is where you can find me.