“Sorry, Can You Repeat That?”: Ramblings of a Hard-of-Hearing Woman

by: Erin Rose Hennessy

Author’s Note: All hearing loss is unique. This blog post is about my personal experience with being a hard-of-hearing woman, and is not meant as a diagnostic or teaching tool.

I can go days without thinking about being hard of hearing. I can function well enough that it isn’t a constant struggle. Suddenly though, and usually without much warning, the frustration and reality crashes into me like a load of bricks.

Someone will get annoyed that they’re being asked to repeat something. The movie I’m about to watch won’t be closed captioned or subtitled (yes, there’s a difference). Or even worse, the captions don’t line up with the dialogue (one of my biggest pet peeves.) Or my year-old digital hearing aid will make the annoying “BONG! BONG!” sound that signals that it needs a new battery. Have you ever had the experience of a grandfather clock chiming right next to your ear? It isn’t pleasant. Murphy’s Law will of course dictate that this happens during a very important or busy time of the work day, or at a time when I don’t have spare batteries with me because I’ve run to the store for ten minutes.

This reality is something I was born with, so I find it interesting when I’m called “strong” or “brave” simply for being hard of hearing. I don’t know any different. It simply is what it is as far as I am concerned.

I have sensorineural hearing loss. According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, this is caused “when there is damage to the inner ear (cochlea), or to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain. Most of the time, SNHL cannot be medically or surgically corrected. This is the most common type of permanent hearing loss.” (www.asha.org).

A typical cochlea is lined with numerous tiny little hairs. These hairs are all the same size and vibrate when sound enters the ear. They send signals to the brain to decipher these sounds. When I was growing in my mother’s womb, these hairs didn’t develop normally. The ones that did grow are different sizes and have trouble receiving sounds. The result of this was that I am completely deaf in my right ear and I have a “moderate-to-severe hearing” loss in my left ear.

When a typical person hears a sound, they rely on both ears to be able to tell which direction the sound is coming from. Since I only hear from one ear, I can’t tell where any sound is coming from – just that there is a noise somewhere in my immediate vicinity. The kids in elementary school caught onto that quickly and thought it was hilarious to whisper my name and watch me look around frantically.

One very common question I get is: “How much can you actually hear?” I’ll try to explain this as well as I can! I can hear most noises and sounds. What I have trouble doing is picking out the words. If there is music playing, I can hear the tune and the beat, and might pick out one or two words, but mostly they’re singing gibberish. The only exception would be a song I have memorized. If that’s the case, I’m essentially recalling the song as it is sung and matching up the words as I hear them. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? If you are facing me, talking in a normal speaking voice (no yelling, no whispering), don’t cover your mouth (with your hand, Kleenex), and there is little or no background noise, I will likely hear you almost perfectly. This is due to two things – I can hear your words clearly, but I can also read your lips.

However, if you are turning away from me, speaking as you are moving across the room, rest your hand on your chin, and/or there is a party going on in the same room as we’re in? I wish you luck and hope you know sign language, because otherwise I will understand probably 10% of what you are telling me.

There are many misconceptions that surround hard-of-hearing and deaf people. The ones I encounter most are:

All “hard-of-hearing” people are “deaf.” For most people, I find there is a distinction. Hard-of-hearing means simply, the person has a hard time hearing. Deaf means the person can’t hear anything at all. If one wanted to get really particular, I’m deaf in one ear and hard-of-hearing in the other! Part of Deaf culture is being able to identify with the term the individual is most comfortable with and most others will respect that.

All deaf people sign and lip read. In a word, wrong! Some deaf/hard-of-hearing people sign. Some have learned the skill of lip-reading. Some only do one and some do neither and choose other avenues. Never assume and always check with the individual about her or his own needs. I personally lip read with 94% accuracy (according to a test I was given in high school). My ASL (American Sign Language) skills were much better when I was younger! I can still understand most of what a person is signing, but I’m not wonderful at actually producing the signs.

 All deaf people wear hearing aids and hearing aids are a cure-all. Wouldn’t that be nice if just popping a hearing aid in made it all better? For the most part, hearing aids only amplify the sounds one is hearing. Some digital hearing aids have new features that do help to a greater extent. My current hearing aid will muffle background noise that make it easier to hear the person in front of me. However, no hearing aid is equal to an actual fully functional human ear. Maybe as we make further advances in cell regeneration! There are many reasons an individual will choose whether or not to wear a hearing aid, but not every deaf of hard-of-hearing person does.

And if you really want to irk the deaf/hard of hearing person? Call us “hearing impaired.” We double dog dare you!

Being hard-of-hearing has caused several difficulties in my life, but have made other parts of my life easier.

I’ve had to learn patience and understanding – not just with me, but with others. It has also made me much more observant, creative and intuitive. I spent so much time just sitting and watching everyone else talk that I began to create my own little worlds.

I love the English language. I love playing with it, using it to make new worlds. This is a rare skill for a hard-of-hearing individual, as ASL doesn’t match up with English, grammar-wise.

I’ve loved children since I was a child myself. Children don’t care if you don’t understand everything they are saying – as long as you appear to be listening and are a fun person. Children don’t judge. The kids I teach, babysit and now, auntie, pretty much only ask “What’s that thing in your ear?” They’re satisfied with “That’s a hearing aid. It helps me hear you.” They say “Oh.” and go back to playing. Then later, I’ll hear that same child explain to a newcomer why Teacher Erin has a hearing aid.

Being hard of hearing is definitely unique. If I was given the chance to be hearing, I wouldn’t. Why? This is who I am, who I want to be, and what I want to give to the world.


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