Blog: The Invisible Disability

My hearing loss journey

I remember my first hearing test at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. A doctor in a white coat stood behind me with a tuning fork, asking if I could hear it. It was determined that I was partially deaf in my left ear.

Later, I started a plant mechanic apprenticeship for a building company, where hearing care was non-existent. Working inside a concrete mixer drum cleaning out set concrete with a pneumatic hammer likely contributed to my hearing loss. As I got older, around the age of 40, I became involved with outdoor festivals and developed a love for loudspeakers and feeling the vibrations, which probably furthered my hearing deterioration. I began using one hearing aid in my left ear and later started wearing two. Regular check-ups showed my hearing was deteriorating slowly. 

Retirement came early for me at 60, and I started looking for an activity to occupy myself and contribute to the community. That’s when I got involved with Hearing Link Services. Until then, my hearing loss hadn’t significantly impacted my life as it had been gradual, and I had adapted to it. However, I realised how fortunate I had been through my involvement with the Charity and hearing other people’s stories. It was only recently that my frustration with my hearing loss grew. I found myself advocating for people who are hard-of-hearing (HoH), which has brought me great joy but has also led to conflicts with ignorance. This has inspired me to write the following.

The challenges of a hidden disability

Most disabilities are obvious, but there is one which is fully registered as a disability and is misunderstood and cannot be seen, which is HoH.

HoH is not just a disability; it’s a unique and often misunderstood experience. The effects and challenges of hearing loss are profoundly personal and vary from person to person. These unique experiences, often overlooked, are the key to fostering empathy and creating a more inclusive society.

Understanding the challenges of HoH individuals is more than just being aware of their condition. It’s about fostering empathy, but it’s also about something more tangible: promoting clear communication. This is not just a suggestion, it’s a necessity. Clear communication is the key to creating an inclusive and supportive environment where individuals feel heard, valued, and understood. It’s a small, but significant action, that can make a world of difference for HoH individuals.

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Does technology help?

Technology nowadays is helping HoH people in the form of hearing aids. Aids nowadays are amazing instruments that significantly enhance the patient’s ability to join society, but as the name suggests, they are only aids for hearing. Hearing aids are finely tuned instruments adjusted to the individual’s hearing loss, so using another patient’s hearing aids will not help. A common remark to users of hearing aids is: “Well, just turn them up”.

Unfortunately, it is more complicated than just turning them up, as the brain interprets what the ears have heard. This is easier to understand when you remember that humans developed our senses for things like hunting and looking out for danger.

What it’s like living with this hidden disability

Supposing one was out to collect water from a stream, your hearing would reduce the noise of the stream so it is in the distant background. It is a familiar sound, so there is no need to hear it clearly, but then you hear the snap of a twig; this will immediately alert you to the possibility of danger. People who are HoH lose this ability, as all sounds are at the same volume level.

Another example of this would be in a café having a conversation with a friend at an inside table. People who are HoH will be at this point concentrating on their friend’s face and body movements to try and understand what is being said. With other people’s conversation, the coffee machine bubbling away and the waiter clattering cutlery and crockery in the background, all at the same volume, this requires a lot of effort on their part. The concentration required is a challenge and is tiring. Imagine all this happening all day, a constant cacophony of noise that people who are HoH try to diagnose continuously.

Helping those with hearing loss

There are many ways to help the HoH, and one of the best known / available is a hearing loop, usually identified by a sign which has an ear with a line diagonally across it in blue. This is an enormous help as it concentrates the sound input from the microphone into hearing aids with the T-coil setting, reducing erroneous noises, which is a relief and relaxing experience.

Losing hearing is more than first meets the eye, as it changes those who suffer in their lifestyle and mental wellbeing. However, a lot of help is available, and it’s often as simple as speaking, facing each other, and reducing background noise. Understanding and implementing these small but significant actions can make the world more inclusive for HoH individuals.

Thank you for listening, which was easy for you but hard for us, HoH folk.