The following article from the SHHH Journal is posted with
permission. The SHHH Journal is published bimonthly by SHHH
(Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, Inc.), an international
nonprofit volunteer organization devoted to the welfare and
interests of those who cannot hear well. For membership and
other information, contact:
7910 Woodmont Ave, Suite 1200
Bethesda, MD 20814
Email: shhh.nancy at genie.com (Nancy Macklin)
No Sound of Music, by Edythe Buchwald (SHHH Journal 5/95)
Yesterday it happened again. I was the luncheon guest of an old
friend and her new husband. I wanted to make a good impression.
But, in the landmark mansion-turned-restaurant, high ceilings,
bare floors, enormous stairways, and huge bay windows made the
place an acoustic echo chamber for my hearing loss. I heard
correctly when my friend ordered Chablis blanc, and I nodded to
the hovering young waiter that I would have the same.
"I would like raspberry," I heard her husband say.
"Oh," I said, "I'd like that, too. Please change my order."
A glass of wine was served with a flourish to my friend and, to
my dismay, a glass of beer to her husband and to me. A startled
"Oh!" escaped me.
My host had ordered draft beer. I heard vowel sounds rather well
and supply consonants that seem to fit the occasion. The "a" in
draft and the "ee" in "beer" had composed themselves into
"raspberry" to me - raspberry wine. He covered my discomfort
with a quiet word to the waiter, but, having good hearing, he
could not possibly have understood my erratic behavior.
I live with mortification and embarrassing moments. Sometimes I
feel that, if I were not hopelessly gregarious, I would become a
recluse, an anchorite, a hermit.
The media informs the public, graphically and at length, of
several highly visible disabilities. The invisible disability of
hearing loss fares less well. The lack of knowledge is the root
of despair in the person with the hearing loss, and of extreme
irritation among associates. Sad but true, hearing loss can lead
Sounds that do not distinguish themselves into words do not
produce successful communication.
Regardless of how many times I am told, "You can hear when you
want to," I cannot. I can pretend to hear, but that usually
causes more problems than it solves. For example, in making
introductions, people invariably look at the one whose name they
are saying, eliminating any possibility of my hearing it. An
unintentional act, and totally effective. Asking to have a name
repeated, perhaps even a second time, may bring an impatient
look, but in the long run, that is preferable to the one of
perplexity at an inane reply to what I thought I heard.
Having ridden the anticipation-to-disappointment roller coaster a
number of times, I have learned to decline invitations to large
parties when possible. I may hear a cheery, "Hello!
Was the mumble a trite "How are you?" or "Isn't this a lovely
party?" or even, "You look stunning!" My only clue to a suitable
reply is interpretation of facial expression. Of course, if it is
a close friend, I simply ask, "What?" Being candid has
advantages, but when candor is unfeasible, I assume as pleasant
an expression as I can muster and, feeling like a mannequin,
occasionally utter non-committal sounds.
When I do not respond with the expected social strokes, I am
thought to be aloof - or stupid - and am abandoned. The
unintelligible clamor grating on my nerves, at times becomes
Then I switch off the hearing aid and amuse myself with whatever
fiction enters my head. A fertile imagination and an active sense
of humor are essential to survival. A world of indistinguishable
sounds is a baffling and lonely one. It is claustrophobic to be
locked in with only my heartbeat for company. Not hearing creates
a chilling quietness like being lost and alone in a blizzard -
continuous movement all around me but no noise to bring it to
It all started with an ear infection in early childhood. The
hearing loss was slight and I was unaware of its gradual increase
until I was teaching school. One day I had just asked a pupil to
repeat an answer a third time when I suddenly realized that the
problem was my hearing. A drugstore hearing aid got me through
the school year. Since then four surgical operations for
cholesteatoma (a bone-destroying infection) and complications
have banned me from the world of normal sound but not quite
banished me to total silence.
I am deaf, according to Webster: "deprived of a sense of hearing
whether wholly or in part."
Psychologists term an acquired severe hearing loss the greatest
single trauma a person can experience." It is the one disability
that sets people apart from their fellow human beings. Man has a
basic drive to communicate beyond minimal needs. Language was
evolved for just that purpose. Have you ever been intimate with a
partner with a hearing loss? Can you imagine the effect on that
partner's emotions when the soft words, whispers, murmurs are
"Listening is the predominant means of communication used every
day throughout a lifetime," Lynn K. Steil, chair of the Speech
and Communication division at the University of Minnesota, said
in an interview in US News and World report. "Individuals spend
80 percent of their waking hours communicating in one way or
another. Of that time about 45 percent is spent listening.
Listening is much more complex than reading. People can put aside
their reading and return to it later, but in listening the
message is written on the wind. It is transient. You get it the
first time or it is lost."
Without stimulating, informative, humorous, affectionate verbal
exchange, the very medium of intellectual growth is cut off. The
nonsensical meaning of the partial sentences I hear addles my
thinking. Nothing quite makes sense. No ordinary sound sounds
ordinary. I must make a conscious sustained effort to associate
ideas and events that normally hearing people absorb in casual
conversation, in order to stay in the mainstream of living. And I
must remember to add the final consonants (that I do not hear) to
past-tense verbs, to pronounce the "d" in "don't," the "in" in
"instead," to add the "an" to "Marian."
The sound of my own voice is internalized. I never know whether I
am whispering or shouting. I have learned never to make a comment
in public that I do not wish to be a public statement.
"Don't you read lips?" l am asked. Every person with a hearing
loss reads lips - instinctively. Proficiency in it is an art, if
not a heaven-sent gift. At best, lipreaders can catch only one-
third of the spoken words. In normal conversation, the lips make
13 movements per second; the eye can translate only eight of
those to the brain.
It is no small accomplishment to understand a speaker by watching
his lips, tongue, teeth, and throat muscles, and, at the same
time, concentrate on what he is saying rather than on the effort
to hear it.
Without directional hearing (being able to discern from what
direction a sound is coming), following a group conversation is
like watching a tennis match: keeping my eye on the ball.
Sometimes I miss the serve. Unless I happen to be looking at the
person who initiates it, I can only guess at the topic.
I concentrate so hard I get a slight headache. I can inquire -
but only as a last resort. It distracts the entire group.
Inquiring can be safer than guessing, however. It prevents me
from offering some total non-sequitur that embarrasses me, and my
hearers for me. A hearing loss is day after day after day of
tenseness; it is an alienation from the joy of living.
My loss diminishes others, too. My blindness could not dim your
vision; my lameness would not impede your mobility; but my
hearing loss thwarts your ability to communicate. When I do not
hear you, your social impulse, as well as mine, is inhibited. If
you are unaware of my predicament, a mutually rewarding
relationship can founder on that hidden barrier.
Hearing loss is not announced by a white cane, or crutches, or a
wheelchair, it is true, but it is visible. When you see the
tensed jaw muscles, the strained alertness around the eyes, the
puzzled expression, try not to show your impatience. Try not to
send a friend an anguished look. Remember, I can see. Let me see
your face when you speak; do not cover your mouth with your hand,
or talk to me with your back turned þ or from another room.
Shouting only distorts sound wave frequencies, and you sound to
me as if you are practicing Chinese. Just speak clearly at a
moderate speed in a normal tone and, please, do not drop your
voice at the end of a sentence on the punch line. I like to trade
bon mots as well as you do.
I know of no adequate means to demonstrate a severe hearing loss.
The physical aspect of blindness can be simulated by simply
closing ones eyes. Ears cannot be closed and opened at will. A
person with normal hearing wearing swimmers' ear plugs can hear
conversation 12 feet away. Without my hearing aid, I can hear
shouting from a distance of two feet.
I am denied not only the pleasure of the theater, movies,
lectures, concerts, but also the aural banalities of ordinary
existence. I do not hear (and understand) store clerks, bank
tellers, waitresses, cashiers, or anyone else in casual daily
encounters. I am deprived of all the miscellaneous information
you hear, and overhear, in random conversations around you. I
overhear nothing. I cannot hear you whisper.
If I hear the doorbell, I answer it expecting to be confronted by
a stranger whose words I cannot understand. I hear a telephone
ring only if I happen to be in the room with it. When I am called
to the phone - the one with the built-in adjustable volume
control - I can hear the incoming voice more or less normally.
That is, l can understand the words; I cannot recognize the
voice. To hear a soft or highpitched voice, I attach another
(battery-powered) amplifier and adjust it, too. By now the voice
is so depersonalized it has the person-to-person rapport of a
directory assistance recording.
Any voice on a public address system is unintelligible. Those
sounds bounce off all six hard-surfaced sides of a classroom, a
hospital waiting room, an airport boarding area. They add
distraction to my frustration and not one iota to my information.
Walking downtown I must remind myself to stop and look both ways
like a school child before crossing a street. Indoors or out, I
am startled by the sudden awareness of another person at my
shoulder. Not warned by the sound of footsteps or a door opening
or closing, that unexpected body is, for an instant, a shock - a
threat - experienced by my whole being. It triggers an automatic
fight or flight response: quickening heartbeat, sweating palms,
churning stomach - and all the emotional and physical upsets that
taut nerves can cause.
An acquired hearing loss rarely happens suddenly. It is
insidiously progressive, "a quiet shutting, one by one, of
doors." But I remember the sounds behind those doors - the patter
of rain on the roof and wind rustling in the trees, the first
four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that a bird sang by my
bedroom window, and the whir of the alarm clock. I remember the
ticking and chiming of clocks, the tiny percussive snaps of
chopping fresh vegetables on a cutting board, the ping of a
timer, the rainy sound of sycamore leaves in the wind, the sound
of a lifting sail and of waves spanking the hull of a boat, the
rustle of autumn leaves underfoot, children's laughter as they
romp home from school, distant Christmas carols in the frosty
"Don't bend your eggs," my husband said one evening.
"Don't blame your age," he repeated. (Those vowels again). He
read aloud from a magazine, "Three and a half million children
are afflicted. Thirty to sixty percent of college freshmen cannot
As diverse in its victims as it is in its causes, hearing loss is
no respecter of age, wealth, beauty, sex or profession. There are
28 million people with hearing loss. That adds up to more than
all those suffering from heart disease, cancer, multiple
sclerosis, blindness, tuberculosis, venereal disease, and kidney
disease combined. The reading and viewing public is informed
about the problems of those afflictions, but precious little is
told to clarify the plight of people who are hard of hearing.
The peripheral effects on the personality are an unacknowledged
cause of bickering, friction, and discord. I am the same person I
was when I could hear well; the essential self is immutable. But
the utter frustration of being isolated from the ordinary sounds
of daily life builds into a silent, impotent rage.
I become moody and withdrawn. I feel that the world is rejecting
me and I fight back by rejecting it. I am torn between the
longing to participate fully in all that each day offers and the
wish to withdraw completely. I feel insecure; my self-confidence
There are compensations, I tell myself. I can flick the off
switch of my hearing aid and get rid of all those noises nobody
wants to hear: the roar of the 16-wheeler in the canyon of a city
street, a noisy party in the motel room next door, the teens' TV
programs and blaring stereos, the neighbors yipping dog. And I
can turn off the garrulous bore who leaves me stony-eyed.
Trivial, relatively, but they are tranquilizers that help me
I am happy to have escaped the age of the ear trumpet (a cows
horn shaped gadget held to the ear and shouted into) and I am
confidently awaiting the hearing aid that can reproduce normal
hearing. In the meantime, I do wish mine would behave more like
the mechanical device it is than like a temperamental prima
donna. It has a life of its own: it "sings" at odd and
inconvenient moments. I shall never forget the first time it
"sang" when my husband kissed me. I flinched, but he held me
close and said, "Who else responds with a squeal?
No, I don't seek solitude - only understanding.