Georgie Barraclough: Wearing my ears on my sleeve

Posted on June 27, 2012

Last year, after a ten year break from wearing any kind of hearing aid, I asked to be referred to an audiologist to find out if a pair would help me with my mild to moderate hearing loss, first picked up at a school hearing test when I was four.

A couple of weeks later, I left the hospital able to hear my feet on the floor, all the annoying rattles in my car and the noise the boiler makes at home. It was like a whole new world.

Having long hair, it was my little secret, with only those closest to me knowing that I wore them, and on the occasions when I had to wear my hair up – like ballet lessons or general bad hair days – I wouldn’t put them in. I’d have a deaf day.

At the beginning, this didn’t get to me; it was a bonus to be able to hear all the other stuff I’d missed out on before, so going back to hearing what I was used to didn’t bother me. That period didn’t last long though.

I would liken wearing hearing aids to earning more money; once you get used to having that bit extra, it’s hard to go back to having less. Eventually, I began to resent not hearing well at ballet or having days at work with my hair up, struggling to hear in meetings or on the phone. I started to wonder who I was going without my aids for, because it certainly wasn’t me.

So one night I went to ballet with my hair in a bun and both hearing aids in. Prior to that moment, the thought of having someone stood behind me at the barre, eye-balling my volume switches, mortified me, but I left my lesson an hour later thinking, “Erm, why hasn’t anyone mentioned it?”

People’s reactions to seeing me for the first time with my aids in generally fall into one of three categories. The first is the curious people who see them but are far too polite to say anything about them, although they’re not always too polite not to sneak a peek when they think I’m not looking. The second is the people who are curious and say something supportive at an appropriate time, such as’ “I think you do really well to say you have a hearing problem.” The third category consists of people who don’t appear to have a filter between their thoughts and what comes out of their mouth, exclaiming whatever insensitive or stupid thought springs to mind. The most potentially embarrassing of these reactions was at work a few months ago.

It was a Wednesday – ballet day – and I had my hair up in a big bun. I was on my way to an appointment at a centre where the team don’t know me all that well. I signed in at reception and turned to go through to the waiting room when, at the top of her voice, the receptionist piped up “I didn’t know you wore a hearing aid Georgina!” It wasn’t out character for her, she can be a bit mouthy, but I was shocked nevertheless.

The old me would’ve died of mortification, since this is the reason why I dreaded wearing my hair up, but not now. I’m probably becoming a bit mouthy myself too. Instead of muttering something and wandering off, I turned to her and said, “No, not many people do know that, but you’ve saved me the job of telling everyone here, thank you. And I wear two actually.” That shut her up.

Situations like this have made me realise that it isn’t me who has a problem if people make a big deal of me wearing hearing aids. For a start, it’s one way of educating people about hearing loss. I’ve had a lot of people ask to see my aids out of my ears, wanting to know how they work. The biggest bonus I have found is that I don’t have to tell people I am deaf because they can see that I am, it’s the equivalent of a white cane. Well, most of the time anyway. I have had people ask if they’re Bluetooth headsets for a mobile phone. How many people have you seen wearing two of them at once?

There are days when I feel a bit cantankerous and am tempted to tell people that I work for MI5 and that’s how my superiors communicate with me. Some days I don’t want to talk about it at all and I say the bare minimum. The most interesting reaction of all was a couple of weeks ago when I was asked by a member of staff how my sign language was, as if everyone who is born deaf has the in-built ability to sign. When I explained that my sign language is non-existent they looked a bit bewildered, even though I have known them 8 years and I have only ever communicated with them via speech.

If I can raise people’s awareness by wearing my hair up a couple of times a week then it can only be a good thing, it just takes confidence to admit to people that you aren’t quite like everyone else. A couple of months ago I saw a little boy, probably about 6 years old, wearing two bright blue hearing aids. My initial reaction was, “Well that just draws attention to them,” but when I thought more about it I wondered, “Why not?” I actually wish that my new pair – transparent plastic ones so you can see the bits inside – were bright pink. If you’re going to have them on show they might as well be in a colour you like.

Perhaps with my next pair I’ll be brave enough.

Georgina lives with her husband in West Yorkshire, where she works as a local government manager. She has been deaf all of her life and suffered a further loss in both ears in 2012. She loves going to ballet lessons, reading, listening to music and spending time with family and friends, often over a good bottle of wine. In her spare time she is learning about photography.

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