VERTIGO, nausea, slight claustrophobia, a creeping sense of panic... these were my initial reactions when I began my experiment as a person with hearing loss.
I was given a set of earplugs to simulate the effects of hearing loss as I walked around Cork city for a day, with Ray Hegarty, a hard of hearing gentleman from Rochestown, as my guide.
I was given a form of putty to block my ears and wearing what looked like ear defenders to further block out my hearing. Ray and the my Cork Deaf Association office colleagues experimented by walking behind me and speaking to me. While able to make out general sounds, I was missing entire conversations unless I looked at the person’s face.
This was my first lesson: being hard of hearing does not mean total loss of sound. It can mean certain sounds are harder to hear than others. I also found I was instinctively turning to see a person’s face in order to understand what they were saying. Ray said for a person with a hearing loss, communicating with someone “requires concentration. You need to focus on the person fully. It becomes intense as you need to stop, turn your body and look directly at the person you are talking to.’
Now in his sixties, Ray began to lose his hearing in his late thirties. “It began in crowds. I noticed I couldn’t catch everything and thought it was maybe a wax build up. I would have my ears syringed but looking back now it was the start of the hearing loss. Eventually, I realised my hearing was going and I now have hearing aids. I find the Loop system which inks into my hearing aid brilliant, especially for mass as it lets me hear the priest directly. It’s like he is talking to me directly and it has made a huge difference for me.”
Audio induction loop systems, or audio-frequency induction loops (AFILS), are assistive technologies that can be used in public spaces like theatres or places of worship to allow sound to be transmitted directly to a person’s hearing aid without distracting noises.
Ray said: “One-to-one conversations are something I feel I have adapted to well. I can manage to keep up with the person if I am facing them and concentrating, but in a busy street, bar or crowd I lose what is happening around me. People can make, you know, a joke about it but I notice that sometimes people just want to move on, like its taking too long. They don’t want to spend the time.
“You get used to it but I’m person who always loved to engage with people. I was a fruit and veg sellers for years and I think I push myself to connect with people because I know it’s good for my mental health. I’m doing yoga for the first time at Cork Deaf Association and it’s all about new experiences but I probably should practice more in between classes.”
I start my journey into Cork city with Ray beside me as my guide. Traffic is fast; it sounds like the distant sea and is a constant rumble. The heels of my boots make no sound but I become aware of the vibrations of each step and at first the fast movements and vibrations make me feel a little dizzy. Ray notices and stops me.
“Take a minute,” he says, “get used to it. Slow down and just look around you for a minute.”
I do and the speed of people walking past me slows and I begin to notice things. Ray is talking to me, but because he is at my side, I fail to notice until he touches my arm to stop and look at him. When I do and I concentrate, I can make out enough of the conversation to be able to follow him. It feels like I am alone in my house at night but my eyes are seeing cars, buses, people and shop signs. Ray said: “It’s disassociation and what you’re feeling is normal. That you are in the centre of the city but you feel alone, like you are not quite part of it.”
We stop at my next test; traffic lights. Ray will watch as I cross the road. I have to admit that as a professional Corkonian I rarely engage with the red or green man and rely on the goodwill of drivers to cross Patrick Street. This time, as I step onto the road, a car and van rush into my peripheral vision and I panic. I could not hear them. Until they came into my vision I was unaware of them. My hearing was second nature to me and I had never realised how I used it for so many little details or my safety.
We enter a bookshop and I try to buy a paper and a book. The assistants are professional and helpful but as they turned to the shelves and I could no longer see their face, I was lost. I was being given advice but it was a blur. I kept saying ‘pardon’ and ‘what’ every few seconds and eventually I gave up and nodded, even though I still did not know what was being said. I felt like a nuisance, as though I was taking up too much time. Ray said: “You get used to it and stop worrying about taking up people’s time, but I remember feeling like this as well.”
The streets are interesting. I do not notice people until they are right next to me and I can just about hear the music from buskers but this drowns out everything else.
We enter a mobile phone shop, to see if I can have a conversation where I need to understand the information and services. I explain to an assistant there is something wrong with my phone. She investigates from behind a computer screen. I can see her eyes but not her mouth and I do not know what is going on. She begins to notice my difficulties and Ray mentioned afterwards that I seemed to be getting agitated and was leaning in. She moved her screen and leant in and suddenly I could make out what was happening. Instead of just speaking, she began to use her hands and demonstrated, on my phone, what I needed to do.
Shops were interesting. There is a moment when people realise I am having difficulties communicating. Their eyes reveal it and they either speed up and move on, or slow down and begin to speak clearly.
The coffee shop was our final stop and Ray told me to take a minute to look around and relax. I noticed I was tired, the effort of concentration it had taken to walk around the city and talk to people was telling. I felt like I had just sat an exam.
As I sat with my tea, I began to reflect. If you cannot hear those around you, movement becomes your focus. Life becomes introspective and details like tinsel blowing by an air duct or the writing on a waitress’s t-shirt are magnified.
Ray said: “As you adapt you get used to this and prioritise your interactions and get used to not hearing the general sounds around you. It is an introspective place but also quite peaceful at times.”
I considered my morning and realise that with a guide I felt safe, but how would I feel if I was rushing with my children? Children move quickly and distract you, especially if you now need to be able to make eye contact with someone to understand them. How would I manage in a shop if I had to watch my children and interact with others? Or on a busy road if one of them ran ahead into the sea of people? There is a vulnerability to not being able to hear totally. Roads, phones and cars become hazards and a worry for the person and their families.
Hearing loss awareness is vital. The World Health Organisation predicts adult hearing loss is set to become one of the top ten health concerns in the developed world. Currently 8% of Irish adults and a third of people over 60 have significant hearing loss. Sadly, less than half of people affected take active steps to address it, despite the fact their quality of life may be severely compromised.
Your hearing is a vital part of everyday interactions with family, colleagues, doctors, customer services, banks and shops. People who are hard of hearing are at an increased risk of social isolation and developing symptoms of depression or dementia.
Cork Deaf Association held a Hard of Hearing Awareness Week last week to promote awareness of the impact of hearing loss and encourage people to seek support.
Its services include a Hard of Hearing Support Group, One-to-One Communication Advice, Adjustment to Hearing Loss Advice, Hard of Hearing Information Leaflets and Assistive Technology (such as specialised smoke alarms, phones and TV listening devices.).
My insightful experience changed my relationship with the hearing I took for granted. If I find someone asking me to repeat myself or slow down, my typical reaction of impatience or frustration will now be one of a little more understanding. Cork without hearing is like a silent movie without subtitles. “
Cork Deaf Association
Contact: (021) 4505944 /085 8249693