I see myself as being quite secure in my deaf identity. I’m part of a diverse community and a rich culture, and I have a generally positive view of my deafness; I firmly believe that any disability I have as a result of my deafness is that caused by communication barriers and not my medical status.
Medically though, I was already profoundly deaf, with an average hearing loss of about 90 dB. I wear hearing aids, and whilst they’re far from perfect I get a lot of sounds – although they’re jumbled and don’t make much sense.
I like music, but in order to appreciate a song, I need to learn the lyrics by heart and then learn the song and where they fit in; only then can I listen to it. Radio? Don’t make me laugh. Speech is audible but totally unintelligible without visual cues.
But lately, it seemed like everyone was talking really quietly.
For a while, I had suspected I was losing some of my hearing. I could no longer hear the high pitched beep of the kitchen timer unless it was pressed right to my hearing aid, and entire beats were missing from some of my favourite songs.
Even so, it took me a while to get around to booking a hearing test; it just didn’t seem that important in the grand scheme of things and besides, I was busy. But eventually, the day of the hearing test came, and I breezed into my appointment, confident that I could handle the results whatever happened and contently sat there pressing a button to various beeps, buzzes and whistles.
Then the results were collated. And my new audiogram was put up on the screen. And I realised that most of my high pitched frequencies had gone.
My slightly wobbly line of an audiogram that tapered off a bit at the end had morphed into a recession arrow – a diagonal line, starting at around 85 dB for the low pitched frequencies and nose-diving into the 110s (i.e. off the chart) to the high pitched frequencies.
In total, over 100 dBs had taken a hike. I had no idea it was that much.
I took it on the chin and calmly asked if it was a simple matter of reprogramming my hearing aids.
“Ah… no. They’re not that powerful.”
Ah, OK. However, says the audiologist, there are hearing aids that use a new technology, called ‘sound recovery’ whereby high-pitched frequencies are converted into low-pitch so I can hear them, would I like to give them a try?
“THERE. HOW DOES THAT SOUND?”
“Erm, it sounds a bit weird. You sound like a dalek.”
“YES, THAT’S QUITE NORMAL. IT’LL TAKE A WHILE TO GET USED TO THE NEW SOUNDS; THE AVERAGE IS A FEW WEEKS.”
“I can feel my eardrums vibrating.”
“YES, IT MAY FEEL A BIT STRANGE AT FIRST. EXTERMINATE!”
I may have made up that last bit.
I wandered out of audiology, tripping on weird and wonderful deep bass sounds. Nothing sounded right.
It was fascinating, from a scientific point of view, just how warped everything was. It was a mistake though, to switch on the CD player. Listening to the mangled mess of Gorillaz’s Last Living Souls, I broke down and had a little cry in the car.
Oh, and crying while driving? Not a good idea. You get odd looks from other drivers.
I really hadn’t expected to be that upset, I’m just a little more deaf than I was. I’d thought I could handle it, that it wouldn’t matter that much. Ha. Turns out, being confident and secure in one’s deaf identity doesn’t immunise one from a sense of loss when looking at a changed audiogram.
However, after a couple of days of mixed feelings, I’d accepted it and moved on. Perhaps this is a quick acceptance period, and maybe there I was at an advantage; I was half-expecting the news, and being already deaf and a user of powerful hearing aids meant that in practicality nothing much had changed, I just had slightly more powerful and fancy hearing aids – and in terms of identity, I’m as Deaf as I ever was, so no significant reality adjustment was needed.
I’m getting used to the new hearing aids and my favourite songs at least sound like they’re supposed to now, if a little muffled and still missing some of the higher pitched ‘tsh’ sounds. I’m going to go back some time and ask them to turn the volume down, it’s too much. Volume does not equal clarity. Quite the opposite, in fact. If only more people understood this, they might give up on the whole shouting thing. I digress.
So a lesson learned, just because I’m deaf and happy that way, doesn’t mean that I’m indifferent to further hearing loss, however much I thought I might be. It still hurt. However, it probably hurt a lot less than it would have done for someone who started out with normal hearing. If that’s how I felt about dropping some high pitched frequencies, I can’t imagine the shock of unexpectedly losing it all one go.
I now believe even more strongly that children and adults who go through this should be supported from day one – and yes, given access to sign language.
Another reason I was able to recover so quickly from my further hearing loss; I’m still able to communicate as freely as I was able to before, with or without those high-pitched frequencies: i.e. with or without about half of the range of speech. With sign language to communicate, it doesn’t matter how much I can – or now can’t – hear.
I admit I do miss those ‘tsh’ sounds though.
Donna Williams is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a Deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. She tweets as@DeafFirefly
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