The hearing instrument dispenser or the audiologist is the only hearing professional most hearing impaired people will come into contact with as they learn about their hearing loss. The hearing professional has an obligation and an opportunity to explain how hearing loss is manifested in peoples lives and to validate the clients hearing loss experience. Shared insight from those who have hearing loss is often the best way to learn about hearing loss. Some symptoms of hearing loss look to the untrained observer like symptoms of emotional or mental problems, but more often, those behaviors are manifested from valid variables, such as faulty sound perceptions and sound levels.
I did not wear hearing aids until I was an adult, and then only occasionally. At the age of 63, I now wear hearing aids full time. If hearing aids had been as advanced when I was younger, as they are today, I probably wouldve worn them -- and my life would have been different. I hope my story, thoughts and experiences will help others understand why so many of us hide our hearing loss.
Hearing loss has been with me since birth. My mother had a moderate to severe mixed hearing loss. Although she and I were close, oddly enough, we seldom, if ever, discussed my hearing loss. She stole my thunder, so to speak. Her hearing loss was the issue, not mine. She worked outside the house and to do so, she really needed her hearing aids. We did not have very much money and consequently, I didnt get hearing aids as a young boy. I probably wouldnt have worn them anyway.
My hearing loss was my secret. I noticed that even in my closest relationships, there was a part of me I wouldnt share. I felt damaged on the inside, but looked pretty normal on the outside. I couldnt tell my friends how much I wasnt getting. I have found that bonding with others and sharing my secret has been difficult. How do you share the pain and frustration of hearing loss, especially as a child? The negative, and in many cases condescending, reactions I received while attempting to tell people about my hearing loss, convinced me that hearing people did not understand, a belief I still hold today.
While visiting Gallaudet College in my 40s, I recall feeling like I belonged -- but most of the students signed to each other, and I didnt sign. Pretty soon I remembered the feeling I had in grade school. I really didnt belong there either.
As a childI wondered was I hard of hearing or crazy? Every time I tried to explain my situation, it was met with rolling eyes, disbelief, or worse the complete rejection -- Youre crazy. I failed hearing tests in school, yet nothing happened; no hearing aids, no auditory trainers, no assistance. I was often the only child left in the room after the other kids left. I felt separate from them. Maybe if I try harder? I remember straining to hear, trying to lip-read, leaning forward, pretending I could hear, but mostly feeling left out.
To me, the hearing loss wasnt as big a problem as were the comments from the other children. When the teacher announced we were going to have a spelling bee, my hands started to sweat. We lined up in the back of the class. The sun was in my eyes, blocking the teachers lips. Although I was never able to hear her from this distance, at that moment with the sun in my eyes, I had no sound and no vision. I was totally unable to lip-read. After the third time I asked her to repeat the word, I just misspelled any word I could think of and sat down.
Sometimes the teacher would announce the telephone game. It was meant to show how messages change as theyre repeated from one student to another. Most of the kids loved this game. When it was my turn, I said What? Everyone else in the room could hear, and I had again ruined the game.
The elementary school I attended was also a school for the deaf. All the classrooms on the other side of the school had headphones and the teachers wore microphones. The two student bodies did not mix or use the playground or any of the facilities together. Everything was separate. In fourth grade, a teacher took an interest in me. I started attending classes for the deaf for a couple of hours a day. I did not wear a headset because the classes where small and everyone sat in a tight circle. I remember being fascinated by these kids and falling deeply in love with one girl, but I was clearly not deaf. The kids would ask me if I was deaf and I would reply half. They told me they wished they had half of their hearing. The deaf children were clearly at a different level of learning than I was. I recall sitting on the floor between the two departments; the deaf kids and the hearing kids -- feeling like I didnt belong in either group. When I came back into class with the normals they wanted to know where I had been. I was embarrassed when the teacher told them. I felt even further separated. Their looks told me I was a freak. From then on, teachers announced (more or less) to the class that I was a freak (or so it seemed to me) and I had to sit in the front. I didnt like it. I couldnt see the other kids when they were talking. I had to turn and stare and they would tell me to turn around. I preferred sitting where I could see who was talking.
In fifth grade, I had an ex-marine for a teacher, who taught us to tough it out. I began acting out on the playground. At recess I fought. No extra communication needed --everyone was yelling. I guess I learned how to get people to talk loud and be more animated! I made excuses; stayed away from groups, positioned myself where I could see everyone to better lip-read. I stayed in the back, alone. I shrugged off mistakes and doubted what I heard. I was either close to people, or stayed away. I wouldnt sit close to my friends in school because they would whisper to me and I couldntt hear them. I sat on the other side of the room and saw the confusion in their faces as I walked away, across the room. I always lost debates and discussions in groups, as I couldnt follow the repartee and banter. Often times I couldnt tell what was said to me. I went by the tone of voice, often using my fists, rather than my ears.
These experiences were setting the early bases for my fear of being in public places where people might whisper, and I couldnt hear, but would be humiliated.
I liked being close to those I spoke with. I liked putting my hands on people and watching them as they talked. I loved dancing because I could talk to girls in their ears, and them in mine. One girl in high school told me she liked the way I listened to her every word. She said I was attentive. I told her it was because I was lip-reading her. Never saw her again. Alas. I became the best dancer in the school. I was a dancing fool. The loud beat came through giving me confidence and a way to express myself. I would try to get the girls to go outside or in another room -- away from the noise, and I became known as a ladies man, a loaner and a little strange! For sports, I chose running, swimming, skiing and singles tennis. No team sports for me.
As I grew older I developed a plan to survive. I relied on my intuitive side; occurrences that happened over and over became truth to me. Patterns became the truth. I learned to keep things in the back of my mind before reacting or becoming emotionally involved. When people said, What are you -- deaf? I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I said to myself, they arent aware of what theyre saying. I should forgive them. It is my problem not theirs. I had to learn to dump my anger. Forgiveness and acceptance were my tools, even though I fought an invisible enemy. Everyday embarrassments, mistakes, snafus eventually took their toll.
Unable to defend myself with fists in the adult world, as I had done as a child, I turned inward, alone, sarcastic and dependent on tranquilizers and alcohol. Stress manifested within me as extreme anxiety when faced with social situations and the potential for embarrassment. Panic attacks consumed me in my 20s, 30s and 40s. Counseling did not help. My counselors knew nothing about hearing loss. Many hearing professionals in those days learned about the hearing impaired and their educational and social issues via abnormal psychology classes. Not long ago, deaf people were placed in insane asylums, or sent to residential state schools, and I suppose thats how abnormal psych came to study us! Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) did not help. The meetings didnt help and normal hearing drunks could not identify with my situation. I left the meetings feeling more alone then when I arrived. I stayed away from Valium and alcohol for 30 years. My sobriety at age 33 started me on a life without drugs.
My mother often told the story about when I was in pre-school. She and I would visit Mrs. Aldrich who lived down the block. But every time we visited Mrs. Aldrich, she would ask me What is your name? I responded, My name is Arry. Then they would laugh. They were laughing because I was repeating my name as I heard it.
In kindergarten, teachers reported I was very attentive (lip-reading) but had trouble interacting. I remember feeling anxious when the class became unstructured. Noise levels increased and kids moved about while talking freely from all parts of the room. I remember the anxiety I was having communicating and following directions during these times. I became quiet and watched others, using my eyes instead of my ears and not wanting to engage in any conversation with anyone from a distance. I learned to control my impulse to act upon what I heard. I knew I could not trust my ears. I was hesitant about following directions because I wasnt sure I understood what the teacher said. I preferred to have others start and I would follow. I was controlled by my hearing loss, I was unable to control my environment.
Bobby was my best friend. He and I would lie with our fists propped up under our chins side by side on the floor watching Gabby Hayes on TV. Bobbys grandma sat behind us, rocking and knitting. She asked questions and I would turn to her and say, What did you say? One day she asked, Why can you hear some things and not others? I couldnt answer, but I thought about it. A few weeks later she gave me the answer. She was knitting and we were watching Gabby. She said, I dont think you have hearing loss. I think you can hear when you want to. That shocked me. Was I hard of hearing or not? Why can I hear some people but not others? The question implied to me she thought I was not being honest and her simple assessment was enough to fill me with doubt. As I grew older, other people questioned the validity of my hearing loss. Sometimes I heard, You could hear if you wanted to and selective hearing. I heard those loud and clear! Those assertions undermined my integrity and invalidated my hearing loss, and me.
I have always needed to consciously override the automatic functioning, or integration, of my senses, to hear better. Unfortunately, I can only override information after receiving it. I cannot multi-task! I can only talk to one person at a time and that requires my full attention. If I am reading I have to focus solely on reading. While watching TV, I cannot listen to someone speak at the same time. When I meet someone new, I focus on the interchange, lip reading, adjusting to the voice and person. I consciously adjust and interpret information from this person. While in this mode I am unable to attend to other speech or noise occurring at the same time. To remember a persons name requires me to actually shut down the greeting mode and open the internal memory mode. It takes a conscious effort. I call it channeling, to consciously focus all available senses into one cerebral activity. Channeling overrides automatic sensory integration. Many of my clients reported being multi-taskers before their hearing loss.
As I become more familiar with people, the hearing conversation always comes up. I do not like to get into that conversation with most people in my private life. In my practice, I mention the hearing conversation to my clients, to see how prevalent it is. Seems to me, the more trouble a person has hearing, the more prevalent the hearing conversation becomes. Hearing loss manifests itself into relationships and can negatively impact them, if not well managed. I often point out to my clients that relationships are impacted by hearing loss, and that hearing loss is a pivot point for many personal, social and business relationships.
For many years, as a hearing impaired person, I bought the idea that symptoms exhibited by hearing impaired people could be explained by psychology -- rather than accepting my experiences and those of other hearing impaired people as being a normal response to an abnormal situation. Do low vision people fear strangers more in poorly lit situations? If so, are they paranoid, or just realistic? Do people in wheelchairs fear curbs without ramps? To many of us, thats not even an issue, it exists nowhere on the radar screen but to those in wheelchairs, curbs are a real issue and they represent a potential danger.
I often wondered if my apparent paranoia was really paranoia, or an acceptable learned behavior. If awareness and anticipation of danger is based on real situations from the past, is it normal? Is a prizefighter paranoid if before the fight he becomes anxious about possible injuries and plans strategies to lessen personal injury? The knowledge that others have experienced the same emotions and issues allows me to lower my wall and bond with them. This discussion I have with them, and their families, is the kind of discussion I wish I had had at a much younger age.
It has been an extremely difficult trip. The answers for me were to understand how my hearing loss made me different from others. Once I understood how it manifested in me, I was better able to help others and myself.
As a dispensing audiologist, I work daily with others like me. I share my successes and work to improve my shortcomings. When I was a student, I had no exposure or training that explained, taught and nurtured us with the experiences of those we would later work with. I am extemely pleased to know that modern audiology graduate students study aural rehabilitation, counseling and other topics related to the lives, experiences and expectations of their clients.
Harry Rossman M.S. CCC-A, graduated with a B.A. in Communication Disorders, University of San Francisco 1968., M.S. in audiology from University of Wisconsin, River Falls, in 1985. Mr. Rossman started dispensing in 1961 and is still active in dispensing, learning and sharing with those who will listen.