Charlie Swinbourne: “I was talking behind your back to test your hearing.” My bizarre second visit to my audiologist

Posted on January 7, 2014



Two months ago, I wrote about what I learned from a 15 minute visit to my local NHS audiology clinic.

Just before Christmas, I had my second visit. I must admit I didn’t have high expectations, but I didn’t expect it to turn out the way it did. 

Again, the audiologist (my heart sank a tad when I realised it was the same one as last time) didn’t tell me his name when I was called from the waiting room. Nor did I ask.

When I arrived, I was directed to sit in a chair that had been placed in the middle of the room, with its back to where he would be sitting. This didn’t bode well.

Sure enough, a moment later, having taken my hearing aids off, and had a pair of headphones placed on my head, my audiologist carried on talking to me.

While standing behind my chair.

As I turned to try and work out what he might be saying, I had to wonder how much deaf awareness training he’d had.

Reading his facial expression, I nodded, and that seemed acceptable. He sat down, and soon, I was hearing the familiar beeps of loud and then ever quieter high and low sounds designed to discover how much hearing I have.

When that ended, I reached for my hearing aids and asked him whether he would mind if I put it back on.

He was still behind me at this point, over my left shoulder, and as he shook his head I thought he was indicating that he wouldn’t mind, and started putting my hearing aids back on.

He suddenly looked annoyed and I realised I’d read him wrong, and duly took them off again, before having another test using a different set of headphones.

A few minutes later, the hearing test was over and he began asking me a series of questions which were on his computer, designed to find out how much I hear in different situations.

Each time I answered one of his questions about how much I can hear, he turned back to his computer to put my answer in, and while he did, I replied to some text messages.

I realise that’s not very polite, but in my defence, I didn’t think he’d been all that polite, either.

He didn’t like that, and soon said “please can you not do that while I’m asking the questions.”

That was a cue, as far as I was concerned.

“Well, if we’re going to talk about communication,” I said, “what I don’t understand is that when I came into this room, the chair was placed so that I had my back to you. Then when you spoke to me, when I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids, you were standing behind me, which made it very difficult to lipread you.”

He replied saying that I had to have my back to him during the hearing test, so that I didn’t see him pressing the buttons.

I replied “I can understand that, but that wasn’t during the test. That was before the test, and halfway through, when I asked you if I could put my hearing aids back on. That’s why I misunderstood you.”

He then replied with something I found unbelievable.

“I was finding out how much you could hear,” he said.

When I asked him what that meant, he said that speaking to me with and without my hearing aids enabled him to get an idea of how much he should expect me to be able to hear before I took the test.

I couldn’t really believe that. He needs advance warning of how much I can hear, before he tests me? He speaks to deaf people when they can’t see him, to test how deaf they are?

“Is that part of the test?” I asked him.

“No.” He replied.

“Well, when you asked me to stop looking at my phone, you were asking me to help you communicate with me. But that should work both ways,” I said.

“If you talk to me behind my back, then I don’t feel at ease. You should have been standing in front of me when you were speaking to me so that I can lip read you. If you don’t do that, then a deaf person won’t feel comfortable. A deaf person will think that you don’t really understand what it’s like to be deaf.”

At that point, he looked at me for several seconds and didn’t say anything.

I was sort of hoping he might say I had a point, but instead he just turned to his computer and carried on asking me questions.

I left it there, because I didn’t think saying any more would get me anywhere, and hoping that maybe some of what I’d said might sink in.

What was funny was that he phoned me half an hour afterwards, offering to send me the audiogram I’d requested (which he’d said he couldn’t print out). He sounded a lot friendlier on the phone than he had earlier.

As I said in my earlier article, what worried me about all this is not so much how having this kind of experience affects me, but others – children, or older deaf people – who come into contact with audiology staff who aren’t very deaf-aware, empathetic, or even, as I found in this case, able to acknowledge a deaf person’s point of view.

 At my next appointment, I’m due to get a new pair of hearing aids. I’ll let you know how that goes…

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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