Trizia Wells: How soldiers with hearing loss returning from WW1 changed perceptions of deafness

Posted on October 23, 2014



Mike Gulliver wrote recently about the need for academics and researchers to consult more closely with the deaf community on projects concerning them.

As a freelance community researcher working with disabled groups, I wanted to share my recent experience of working with deaf people on a WW1 commemorative exhibition at the Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds – Recovery? From Flanders to Afghanistan.

Following the principles of co-production right from the beginning, the museum worked with local deaf organizations prior to submitting the funding bid, and were keen to build on that relationship once the project was under way.

The museum has a vast collection of hearing aids from the late Victorian era to present day, including both the quirky and the cumbersome, and the team included a (deaf) PhD student who had worked with the British Society of Audiologists to research the use and disuse of hearing aids in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The focus of the exhibition was combat related injuries, including hearing loss. The exhibition also looked at post traumatic stress disorder and limb loss, and we wanted the contributions of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to help highlight some of the medical and technological advances made since 1914 in these three areas.

We had some fantastic responses to calls for participation from those with limb loss or shell shock (PTSD), but finding participants whose hearing damage or loss had been acquired through military service proved much harder.

Perhaps the nature of the target group was in part to blame. After all, forces personnel are trained to be uncomplaining, deafness is an unseen wound, and downplaying its impact is likely to be an instinctive response for an ex-soldier.

Through research and speaking to former soldiers, we found that most hearing damage occurred, not surprisingly, amongst men working in the artillery sections, and the impact on their hearing ranged from tinnitus to profound deafness.

They were often reluctant to admit to any reduction in their hearing and tended to work around it while still serving in the forces. On leaving, they often felt they had to live with the condition, and didn’t actively seek support, whether from the medical profession or in the form of disability benefits.

Many soldiers told us they had been reluctant to use the ear protection provided while in military service, because hearing is such a vital sense on the battle field and muffling that sense could mean the difference between life and death. Being able to hear a pin dropped from a grenade on the other side of a wall would be impossible through ear defenders or moulded earplugs.

So, with no veterans eager to participate in our discussion groups we decided to expand the criteria to include anyone with acquired hearing loss or damage, from whatever cause.

Calls on social media, personal contacts and approaches to local charities and services resulted in our motley focus group of around half a dozen. This included people with varying degrees and experiences of deafness. Their age range – from 18 to nearly 80 – meant that their lives reflected technological developments and changes in social attitudes too.

Victorian Ladies' Hairpiece

Victorian Ladies’ Hairpiece

The session began with a look at the museum’s handling collection, led by the curator who explained the function and history of each hearing aid, and the session was supported by a palantypist.

Early 20th century hearing aid

Early 20th century hearing aid

We were keen to discover what deaf people would think of these hearing aids and to compare their 21st century experiences of deafness with that of their hundred year old counterparts.

Our participants tried out the speaking tube and wondered just how effectively the Victorian false hairpiece or beard would disguise an ear trumpet.

Two participants try out a speaking tube

Two participants try out a speaking tube

Next came a potted history of hearing aids presented by the Phd student, from early carbon devices up to cochlear implants. The group discussion revealed some surprisingly positive experiences – it was fascinating to hear about the enlightened attitude that the oldest participant had encountered in the 1940s when as a child he had wanted to take piano lessons. Two of the younger participants also pursued music into further education without opposition.

Victorian hearing aid

We heard how one younger participant’s hearing loss had been caused indirectly by WW1. Her great grandfather had become deaf as a result of his military service and, as a consequence, needed to have the television volume turned up to maximum level.

As a small child, she spent a lot of time with him, and her own hearing was damaged as a result. You can read her story and others in the exhibition which gives a new perspective on medical and technological advances in military medicine.

Before WW1, deafness was stigmatized and deaf people were often assumed to also be mentally disabled. It was not thought possible to cure or assist those who were deaf from birth.

As soldiers began to return from the battlefield with damaged hearing or acquired deafness, perceptions slowly began to change.

In the early days, deafened soldiers received only half the disability pension of those who had been blinded. These were previously fit and healthy men with their mental acuity intact; their loss of hearing was directly traceable to the conditions of war.

Questions were raised in government about the treatment of deaf veterans – and as attitudes towards them became more understanding, the wider deaf community also began to benefit.

Recovery? from Flanders to Afghanistan is open at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds until August 2018 and provides many chances to reflect on the impact of visible and invisible wounds, and the medical and technological benefits of war.

I know there is a long way to go, nonetheless it’s ironic to think that today’s arguably more enlightened attitudes towards deafness have their roots in a world-wide conflict that damaged the hearing of so many.

By Trizia Wells

The Limping Chicken is the world’s most popular deaf blog, covering UK news and opinions every weekday.

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