Maureen never realised she had a long-standing hearing loss until her husband-to-be noticed that she didn’t hear him when he stood behind her. So rather than having a sudden hearing loss, she had a sudden identity change from a normal hearing person to someone who was hard of hearing.
Gradual hearing loss
I was born with normal hearing so learned to talk just like other young children but I have a genetic defect which meant that, together with other symptoms, my hearing gradually deteriorated.
I had no idea that I was different to others until, when I met my husband at age 29, he asked me if I realised that I didn’t hear him when he stood behind me. So, rather than having a sudden hearing loss, I had a sudden identity change from a normal hearing person to someone who was hard of hearing.
Lipreading and coping strategies
What a revelation that was! I was amazed and confused and as I shared the news with others, learned that I had been perceived as moody or rude because I had ignored friends who saw me in the street and called or spoke to me. I now knew why other young people knew the words to pop songs and I didn’t – they could hear them on the radio!
I count myself as very fortunate. The gradual decline in my hearing over many years has meant that I have bit by bit developed coping strategies. I learned to lipread naturally because I had to in order to form and maintain relationships. I chose close friends who spoke clearly – not a conscious choice but rather the outcome of finding that trying to converse with people who mumbled or talked behind their hands or hair was tiring and stressful for me.
As a result, I am married to a wonderful man who talks clearly and is interested in understanding what I can hear and how he can be helpful. How much more fortunate I am than a friend who has lost her hearing in later life and whose relationship is suffering because she is married to a man who mumbles. It didn’t matter before but now it is so frustrating for her.
My career in counselling
Since my school days when I helped at a day centre for people with disabilities, I have always enjoyed working with people. Then after university, I was involved in establishing a self-help network and found myself working with counsellors. I discovered I had a natural ability for counselling. People started to ask if they could see me on a one-to-one basis. As much as my heart sung at the notion of doing that, I continued to develop the self-help network but deferred training as a counsellor for 10 years because I thought people coming to be ‘heard’ would feel let down by me.
Eventually I decided to enrol for counselling training just to learn more about myself. I thrived and by the end of the first year, I was seeing clients and was well on my way to becoming a counsellor.
At this point, my hearing loss was both a gift and a burden. On one hand, it had forced me to develop a sophisticated understanding of body language – an awareness of the ‘music behind the words’ and nuances conveyed in subtle ways. On the other, clients found my rather fixed gaze while lipreading too intense and I had to learn how to move my eyes whilst still focusing on lips.
Now clients tell me that my hearing loss doesn’t interfere with their experience in the counselling relationship at all. Group work, not surprisingly, continues to be challenging for me, but is possible as long as I have a good relationship with a co-facilitator. Deciding who needs to know, and when, is contextual and defining the correct timing and wording is challenging. Sometimes I get it right and at other times I don’t.
It is now more than 20 years since I discovered that I had hearing loss, but only gradually have I come to terms with it and become more confident about telling people. While being sensitive to the context of a new relationship, I do now find or create an opportunity to give people the facts about my hearing loss, how I cope and what they can do (or not) to be helpful.
A fear of stigma attached to being ‘hard of hearing’ and worry about other people’s opinions used to hold me back. Now I consider it a useful test. If I am judged as lacking because of my hearing loss then that is not a healthy relationship for me to maintain. The responsibility is shared. I need to tell and others need to listen. Sometimes though even those most willing do forget and then I need to be patient and gently remind them.
‘Hard of hearing’ can be more difficult for people to understand than ‘deafened’. If someone is profoundly deaf then they can’t hear much at all and people need to be told that. However, when someone is hard of hearing and can hear some things but not others, that can be difficult for hearing people to understand. It can look as if they are choosing what they hear or don’t hear – people call it ‘selective hearing’.
I’ve seen wonderful advances in technology over the years. I now have a pair of power hearing aids and a streamer (neck loop remote control) which acts as a ‘hands free’ device that streams sound from my phone, mobile and computer direct to my hearing aids, with volume control too.
I also use loop systems wherever available (they should be in many more places), and I attend lipreading classes to improve my understanding of lip shapes. Skype is also a great tool and because it allows you to see someone via the video stream, I can see use my lipreading skills to offer Skype counselling.
Accepting my hearing loss
As anyone with hearing loss will know, the issues don’t go away. My hearing continues to decline but I have used my years of experience of hearing loss constructively and acquired skills to manage my life such that I still live to my full potential. What is important is that I accept myself with my hearing loss – indeed I am perhaps a more sensitive and deeply empathic person at times because of it.
The challenges aren’t always easy but, as I know only too well from my work as a counsellor, life exposes us to all sorts of difficult and uncomfortable experiences. What is important is to appreciate and focus on our strengths and the gifts life brings, while finding ways to manage difficulties as well we can. You can’t do it alone, but you alone can do it – the support of others, whether friends, families or professionals, can help you.
Webpage published: 2018