A hidden silence - side effect of hearing loss
I was having dinner with my family in a busy, noisy restaurant last Saturday. While we were enjoying the Peking duck, I noticed a man in his early 70s sitting at a table across from us. He and his friends had just finished eating and everyone seemed to be catching up the latest news. His friends looked satisfied and relaxed after their meal. They seemed like a fun group, with everyone engaged in enthusiastic conversation. Someone would say something to the whole table and the rest would smile and nodding their heads in agreement. However, while everyone else interacted, that older gentleman sat with his back straight, his hands clasped at the edge of the round table, and his eyes stared blankly ahead. He seemed neither happy nor sad, just resigned.
What was wrong with him? Was he sick? Was he anti-social? Why didn’t he participate? Why did he choose to be alone and “voiceless”? The answer of these questions was given away by one external clue – the hearing aid he wore on each ear.
He looked relieved when everyone decided that it was time to go home. He rose slowly but determinedly from his chair and put on his coat. I am sure this was what he was thinking: “Finally! It’s over!”
How could I be so sure what the man was thinking, you may ask. It’s because I am one of every four Canadians who, like him, live with hearing loss.
When I was one year old, I was seriously ill and was hospitalized for nine months. The illness passed but it extracted a price that was not detected until I was 30 years old – a serious hearing loss that greatly affected my ability to communicate. When I was in my elementary school, I often teased by my classmates as “tongue-tied” or for speaking Cantonese, my mother-tongue, with a funny accent – missed clue number 1! When I was very young, I consistently missed answering our doorbell – high pitched and weak in volume. I only started answering the door when my brother gave up using the doorbell and began pounding his fist on the metal gate (yes, I could hear that quite well as the banging sound is low in frequency and loud in volume). When I was nine, my brother actually diagnosed me though not very pleasantly: he got so frustrated and called me “deaf woman” – missed clue number 2!
Why was I mercilessly teased for being tongue tied? Why did my school mates and adults laugh at my mispronunciation, even though I was speaking in my own mother tongue? Did they not have empathy? Why didn’t his family or friends try to talk to the older gentleman during dinner? Did they not love or care about him? No! No! No!
The reason, I believe, is lack of awareness and awareness is the foundation of understanding and support. When friends and colleagues understand that people with hearing loss can’t hear normal conversation in a noisy environment, they are more inclined to accommodate their particular needs. Instead of talking loudly or yelling, they would opt to face the person they are speaking to, to repeat and rephrase as necessary and to modify the surroundings to maximize hearing ability.
Instead of resigning him or herself to alienation, the person with the hearing loss can adopt a more proactive approach by informing others of their condition, giving specifics of what they have or have not heard, by confirming what they heard and by requesting clarification as necessary.
So, the next time you speak to someone who seems to be “lost in transmission,” try to speak clearly, reduce background noise and be supportive. Along with a friendly smile and sense of humour, it can make a big difference.