by Hugh Hetherington

To begin with, hearing takes place in the brain. The ear itself is a mechanical-electrical device not unlike a microphone. It receives the sound vibrations from around us and converts them via a multi-stage process into electrical signals that are conveyed to the brain via the auditory nerve. It is a complex system that works synergistically with all of our other senses and provides us with the ability to interpret the world around us.

This complex process, even in the most difficult listening situations give us remarkable abilities to suppress noise, focus on sounds of interest, recognize voices of people we know, and identify an humongous catalogue of sounds that have been filed away in our brains beginning from the time we were born and perhaps even before. It does all of this in fractions of a second.

Unfortunately, hearing loss impairs some of these abilities and affects individuals differently depending upon many factors. Hearing loss can happen at any age and from a wide variety of causes. Congenital hearing loss in children can delay the development of speech and can result in social and educational difficulties. Hereditary hearing loss can show up at any age as can other causes, such as, excessive noise exposure, head trauma and inner ear damage from infections or taking ototoxic medications.

When hearing loss occurs relationships can begin to suffer. There is frequently a misunderstanding about hearing loss, not only by most hearing persons, but by those who suffer from the disability. It is often interpreted as being rude, unfriendly, or even a sign of mental confusion or dementia. It can be called an “invisible disability” and, as such, family, friends and co-workers do not understand the impact it has on the life of the hearing impaired individual. Consequently, they do not know what is needed to make communication easier. To complicate the matter further, many in the early stages of hearing loss fail to recognize what is happening. They are said to be in denial. Can you deny something you don’t know you have? Just asking! The problem generally becomes noticeable at work or when a family member or friend complains about the difficulty in communicating.

Common misconceptions are that hearing aids restore normal hearing or that louder is better. In cases of mild hearing loss this may be partially true, however, in the moderate to severe cases of sensorineural hearing loss, cochlear damage has taken place and making them louder does not restore the missing sounds. Clarity is the issue and appropriately fitted hearing aids along with the right attitude, learned coping strategies and use of other assistive listening devices can help to manage the hearing loss and improve the quality of life for the hearing impaired person and those around them.

How a person feels about their hearing loss and how well they manage their needs are the keys to being successful. The first step is acceptance that there is a problem. This needs to be recognized by all concerned. Communication is a two way process. Patience and understanding are necessary. Certain accommodations are also necessary. Don’t try to communicate from different rooms. Get the attention of the hearing impaired person before beginning to speak. Ensure that you are facing each other. When necessary, make sure that the environment is conducive to good communication by getting away from noise and ensuring adequate lighting. Courtesy, patience and understanding on both sides will lead to less stress and a more enjoyable life.

Reprinted from North Shore Newsletter, June 2007 Edition. All rights reserved