My hearing journey

Rebecca Smith with a personal reflection on being deaf in Psychology.

I am not Deaf, I am deaf. Yes, the capital letter makes all the difference; I can still hear speech, I just have an impaired ability to. Having recently completed a university assignment which involved a reflection on a life experience, I have since realised just how influential my hearing loss has been for me.

My diagnosis

In 2013, Year 9, just as I began to study my GCSE courses, I identified that I could no longer keep up with what my teachers were saying. One event haunts me still. I was asked by a maths teacher “What is 2 cubed, Rebecca?” I was caught off guard, I didn’t even manage to process what the question was. I panicked and the next thing I knew I had high-tailed it out of the classroom. I spent most of the lesson sat outside the classroom having a panic attack. I knew what the answer was, so why did I have that response? 

A few months after, I went to the doctor, was referred for a hearing test, and issued a hearing aid. Only one was issued as it was unsure how much benefit it would give me. Well, seven years down the line I now use two and they do a pretty good job of helping me hear. However, it in no way means it is perfect. I am not cured. Hearing aids and other amplification technologies are not a cure, even though a number of people seem to think they are. It is in the name. It is simply an aid so I can try to function 'normally' in society. 

Work with me

We’re all busy people, we’re human, we forget. I have always been accepting of this. However I spent the rest of my school years (Yr 9-Yr13) having to battle for support, reminding teachers I needed lights on to lip read, they needed to get my attention before giving me instructions, asking questions. This was even in exams. The organiser would tell the invigilators I needed to be told when to start, five minute warning and end personally as I would unlikely hear the room instruction. This was told maybe a few minutes before the exam started. They still didn’t manage to tell me when to start. In my mocks I lost time as I was sat waiting… in some I realised the exam had started before anyone realised I hadn’t been told. In the end I sat my proper exams in smaller rooms where I could hear instructions clearly. 

Listening is tiring enough, please don’t make me, my mum and support staff repeat themselves on a daily basis… it was mentally draining. The number of emails, print outs, communications about how to communicate with a deaf person does not bear thinking about. However, the most important tips from me are: Keep trying, speak calmly and clearly, get their attention first and, probably my most important one, ask the individual which is the best way to support them.

Now at University, I am delighted to have the support I do. My lecturers wear a microphone which links straight to my aids, I am offered smaller rooms for group work if required. I am especially thankful for the course leader who has frequently made herself available to me to discuss how else I can be supported to complete my degree. Now I even have friends who have listened to me explain my difficulties, taken them on board and who don’t walk off in a huff when I have 'ignored' them.

I am much happier now and am mostly content about my impairment. There are days which I feel self-conscious but these are fewer than I ever believed I would experience as a newly diagnosed Year 9 pupil. I feel supported and now able to share my personal experiences and insights with others. 

Taking an interest

Considering the influence of my hearing on the psychologist within me, a crucial moment was when I was introduced to auditory perception in my first year. I wanted to know more and have since read several articles and have found several elements within the discipline which have caught my attention. A number of these articles have actually hit the nail on the head. The findings have provided explanations as to why I faced the difficulties and experiences I did, and even make me question if I’ve been deaf all my life. However is the research enough?

Increasing quantities of research on hearing is becoming available: most likely because it is one of the more vital senses. It can alert us to dangers, allow speech to explain concepts, and greatly benefit human socialisation. Consider this: what do you do if someone asks you a question and you have your mouth full? Do you try and mime your answer? If you try and gesticulate, does the other person understand? As a non-signing deaf, I often try to mime an answer but more often than not I am unsuccessful without using spoken English.

A pattern I have noticed is that there are findings, particularly from deaf adults, which demonstrate that hearing aids are limited in the benefit they can bring. Simply amplifying the sounds may not be all that helpful, as background noise is also amplified. Developments within technology have led to the use of directional microphones in digital hearing aids. These can reduce the quantity of noise amplified however the commonly used ear pieces are open to allow unmodified sounds to enter the ear and therefore directional microphones can only provide minimal benefits (Magnusson et al., 2013). Furthermore, noise reduction programmes are also becoming increasingly common. However, these can struggle to distinguish between noise and speech due to similar tone patterns, further impacting the benefit which hearing aids provide and suggesting that reliance on them is perhaps not the best way forward.

Hearing aids and deafness are commonly associated with old age and have an increasing prevalence in society. Action On Hearing Loss estimate that by 2035, 1 in 5 people will having hearing loss, a rise in prevalence from what is now 1 in 6. There are also issues with music induced deafness as music listening becomes an everyday feature and is played directly into the ear. I do have concerns that the increase of personal listening devices, loud concert gigs and club nights could lead to early onset hearing loss, and there is a small body of evidence which also suggests this. Having experienced the difficulties with socialisation, learning and many more aspects I have, I wouldn’t wish any form of hearing impairment on anyone. It is isolating, frustrating and tiring. 

Overall research has been forming new ideas in the field and there are still more questions to answer. However, when it comes to practice there seems to be less progress. Considering the amount of research which suggests that hearing aids only provide a limited benefit to deaf people, the benefits of sign language and bilingual (speech & sign) language use have been investigated but rarely applied. They point to the idea that sign language is a natural language that deaf people could really benefit from using and may even be able to assist with spoken language development. Research has also made us aware that language learning is significantly easier as a child. So why is sign language use not promoted everywhere? If signing is useful for deaf students, especially when used bilingually, why shouldn’t it be used with hearing students too? Would this promote classroom inclusion as everyone could communicate? In the long term if everyone knew sign language would there be less segregation? The stigma of hearing aids being a cure needs to end, and societal changes made to try to integrate the deaf community into society.

In addition, we need to educate people on how important hearing really is, how hard life can be with even the smallest loss. Being a cellist I have heard band members say that they don’t need ear protection because it isn’t that loud. However, even turning off my hearing aids it was still far too loud, could they already have done too much damage? Maybe by using the suggestions above and integrating the deaf community, hearing people will begin to understand the toll of hearing loss. Maybe they will start looking after their hearing. Even if this doesn’t lead to educating others about looking after their hearing, at least if they become deaf they will already have the ability to use sign language allowing them to stay connected to society and possibly even reduce the risk of mental illness, something else which research has found hearing loss can result in.

Reflection

My experiences have made me who I am today, interested in auditory topics and able to embrace my differences. In Psychology there is a lot of discussion about the individual, and rightly so. Just because this is about hearing loss doesn’t mean that anyone else will have any of my experiences. Others may struggle to ever embrace their disability, and that’s okay too. That’s why it is important to promote inclusivity. Even if a person struggles to embrace their personal situation, it’s important that they feel included and accepted not segregated, an outcast in society.

While the world faces uncertainty, the next part of my journey is to begin my placement year in a Primary school. The school has a high percentage of English Second Language students, demanding a greater level of inclusion within their education. As someone who has faced difficulties within education and inclusion, I hope to be able to use my experiences to support other students from minority groups to support them to develop their goals and follow their dreams.

I will then complete my final year, hopefully combining my interests of educational inclusion, audition and child development for my final year project. Following this I intend to train as a teacher in order to gain experience to move onto an Educational Psychology Programme and pursue my passion further with in educational support and inclusion.

I do have concerns for my working future with my hearing impairment. There will be difficulties when working with young children in noisy environments however this is a challenge I wish to embrace. I do believe that to promote inclusion we need to look to the children. They are the future and if we can teach them to be inclusive hopefully they will pass it on for generations to come. 

- Rebecca Smith is a second year Psychology student at Nottingham Trent University.

References

Magnusson, L., Claesson, A., Persson, M., & Tengstrand, T. (2013). Speech recognition in noise using bilateral open-fit hearing aids: The limited benefit of directional microphones and noise reduction. International journal of audiology, 52(1), 29-36.

Action on Hearing Loss, Facts and Figures, accessed from https://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/about-us/our-research-and-evidence/facts-and-figures/ on 05/05/2020

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