Rebekah Owens: “Are you trying to find Radio One?” My early life in hearing aids

Posted on January 13, 2014

Throughout my school life I never used BSL, having been brought up in an era when the oral method was favoured.

As a result, I have always been reliant on hearing aids as my main means of communication. Wearing hearing aids for 45 years means I have become used to them; and I have also noticed that despite their advantages, they have, for me, presented one significant disadvantage.

As my hearing aids have got smaller, the reaction to my deafness has worsened.

I had no problems at first. At the age of two and a half, Deafened through meningitis, I was issued with my very first hearing aids.

This was 1968 and I was quite lucky. I didn’t have to wear a hearing aid so big I needed a wheelbarrow just to carry the battery.

The aids I got were still rather large, especially for a small, toddling frame. One was a model known as the OL 67, a squarish, blocky thing, referred to as a ‘pocket’ aid, and the other was, I think, always just referred to as the ‘receiver’.

These had to be worn in a kind of harness, not unlike the toddler reins currently sold in Mothercare, all bulky straps and buckles. The whole outfit was huge, resting on my front with parallel leads to each ear.

This was quite a weight of material for little me to manage; but I was not bothered. Not in the slightest. If anything, I thought of these hearing aids as a useful accessory.

There was a very accessible ‘off’ switch for pudgy infant fingers. Any telling off could be silenced, any unpleasant information ignored. In an emergency, my burgeoning lip-reading skills allowed me to recognise important words, so that I could quickly turn the aids back on.

This way, I was always still at the front of the dinner queue for chips.

The main issue for me was that through those early years I did not endure any teasing or bullying; the hearing aids were a part of who I was. I continued with these for the first couple of years of Junior School, then I was issued with the new ‘behind the ear aids’, the BE 12, then the height of technology.

I remember them as three-part structures. Unlike the aids of today where earpiece, tube and case are moulded together, these had three distinct pieces: the case, which was connected to the back piece of the ear mould by a tiny lead. Then the ear mould clicked onto the back piece.

Trouble was, despite these aids being useful for children as the various parts could accommodate growth, I found that my growing up caused one major problem. My ears quite frequently outgrew the ear moulds.

The resulting incorrect fitting resulted in feedback. The aids whistled incessantly. Every time I moved my head, the things would erupt in a cacophony of shrill peeps.

‘Are you trying to find Radio One?’, enquired one teacher, making everyone laugh.

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 12.16.07This was my first encounter with any derogatory response to my deafness. There must be a whole generation of adults whose memories of Junior school are scored through with a symphony of whistles and beeps. My own memories are shot through with them sniggering.

The problem was eventually addressed when I went to Secondary school. The BE12s were replaced with the ‘Phillips’ aids. These were the smallest behind-the-ear aids I had ever worn and the closest to the kind worn today with aid and mould connected by plastic tubing.

I was a teenager at this time, fully grown and these new aids were well hidden, even with the short, natty hairstyle I sported in those fashion-blind Eighties.

This time I found that the reaction to my Deafness was not in the form of teasing remarks about radio signals; it was directly related to the invisibility of these new aids.

When I did not hear what was said to me, or did not respond to a question because I had not heard it, I would ask for it to be repeated.

And this time I found that when I asked this, the responses were invariably prefaced by: ‘Are you stupid?’; or a bout of tutting and sighing.

When I pointed out that, no actually, I was Deaf and showed the aid I wore, the usual response was exclamations of: ‘Well I never knew! I never realized you wore one of those! Isn’t that good?’.

I was always slightly taken aback by this response. Was it good? I realized that the aids were given to me because they were ‘invisible’ or ‘unseen’. To me, this provoked a corresponding reaction from some people that my Deafness was itself ‘unseen’, or ‘invisible’.

Worse, this was seen as a Good Thing.

One occasion in particular, stands out. I mentioned to someone that I was Deaf. The response was a clap around the shoulder and: ‘Oh wow! You wouldn’t know to look at you!’

‘Oh, really?’ I retorted, ‘What’s a Deaf person supposed to look like?’

‘Don’t stress,’ was the reply. ‘At least you look normal.’

I’d have given anything, at that moment, to have the chest aids back.

Rebekah Owens is a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, an ex-teacher and ex-librarian, now a freelance writer and blogger.

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