Let’s be deaf for 5 minutes

26 05 2008

Last week, someone asked me ‘What’s it like to be deaf’? I find this a very difficult question to answer. I said it’s like permanently having a very bad cold, and hearing constant noises in the ears after spending too much time in a noisy nightclub. It’s very difficult to explain to hearing people what it is like to live with imperfect hearing.

Caroline of Irish Deaf Kids brought this simulator to my attention. It’s a great tool for raising awareness of deafness, blindness, dyslexia and autism. I worked my way through the hearing impairment simulator. You’ll need Shockwave for the simulators to work, and don’t forget to switch on your computer loudspeakers.

The main problem hearing loss creates is an inability to cope with background noise. I can’t screen out unwanted sounds or filter voices so I can’t concentrate on one person speaking, I’m hearing all the background sounds as well. Check out this demonstration of background sounds – click on the clock, the pencil, the computer and the printer.

Demonstration : Annoying background sounds in the office

Who would believe that a deaf person can hear all these sounds? Yes, we can! Add on top of that, trying to listen to a person’s voice. So, a learning point here: always try to minimise background sounds – move to a quiet room. This is easy enough to manage in a working environment, but try doing this in a social context – when you’re out on a date and trying to listen to the other person ….. (can’t think of anywhere quiet, can you?!). I was surprised to learn that people with autism have this problem too.

Demonstration : Trying to listen to someone against background sound

I have a complete hearing loss in the high frequencies. This means I can hear the vowels in speech but I can’t understand speech, as I’m missing the consonants (high frequency sounds), therefore I need to lipread. Your voice sounds just like baby talk. This also means I can’t understand the TV or listen on the phone.

Demonstration : High frequency hearing loss

The next demonstration is of low frequency hearing loss. I also have a low frequency hearing loss, although I do have some residual hearing in the low frequencies. This demo has 4 buttons – I thought 2 of them weren’t working (high frequency, low frequency) as I couldn’t hear anything at all – a perfect demonstration!

Lipreading is really very tiring but it’s a necessary evil. There are many factors affecting my ability to lipread someone, and this is something that is often controllable by the deaf person. Being very tired will mean lipreading is much harder as I’m not alert enough to sustain the high level of concentration required.

Relying solely on my eyes means I have one channel of incoming information rather than two (eyes and ears). This makes learning and taking in information much more difficult and time-consuming. I find I learn much better at my own pace and with lots of printed material to take away with me. Obviously, that means I need more time to revise and reflect on this information. It’s also harder to remember material that is received in a visual way and not in an auditory way as well.

Demonstration : Taking in information in an educational setting

And remember, there’s always that pesky problem of distracting background sounds, and tinnitus which is like having a permanent headache, except you hear it. Mine is luckily fairly quiet so I can ignore it, but gets louder when I’m tired or stressed. Tinnitus is often one of the most upsetting side-effects of hearing loss as it can’t be cured, it can only be managed. I find the management tactics that help the most are being relaxed, having other noise in the background such as a very low TV, and concentrating on other things instead of worrying about the tinnitus.

Demonstration : Tinnitus
(thanks to the British Tinnitus Association)

I also have musical hallucinations and loudness recruitment where some sounds are too loud for me. This is because hearing aids amplify a range of sounds around the frequencies used in speech. In order to amplify speech, environmental sounds are made louder as well. So it’s actually quite a noisy old world out there!