Gael Hannan, Hearing Health MattersGael Hannan, Editor
The Better Hearing Consumer addresses the personal experience of living with hearing loss. Editor Gael Hannan, and her occasional guest bloggers, explore every corner of the hearing loss life with humor and poignancy. Comment Policy

If there’s one thing you don’t need when you have hearing loss, it’s another reminder that you have it. We get plenty of reminders throughout the day—every day—with sounds we can’t quite understand, people mumbling, and captioning that’s missing when we need it.

So why on earth would I mark my body with an inky rendition of a cochlea to remind me that I’m hard of hearing, a HoH?

For several reasons, actually. 

First, I happen to like the look of a subtle, artistic, well-placed tattoo. I think, “Wow, that’s beautiful and that person is cool.” It’s not that I don’t admire a full-on butterfly or a three-verse poem covering someone’s back, but my reaction is quite different. “Ow, that must have hurt! And what happens when he hits 30 and he wants a clear body? What if she decides she can’t stand that poem anymore?”

Second, it was a bonding tat-buddy experience with my 20 year old son, Joel. He chose a different design which turned out very nicely, but I’ll admit my preference is to see colorful swallows in the wild, not on my son’s arm.

And my final reason, I suppose, is that I wanted one. It took me awhile to make the decision but in the meantime, I knew that any tattoo I got would relate to hearing loss. (I considered doing something about ‘family’, but remembered the story of woman who tattooed her children’s faces on her ankle. Unfortunately, one of the faces turned out a bit small. Very small. Like a pinhead.) My next brilliant idea was to get—wait for it—an ear on my rear. But at 62, why bother being imprinted with something that no one besides the Hearing Husband would ever see? My son-in-law suggested an alternative: how about a rear on my ear?  Not gonna happen. Then I briefly considered doing a lovely “HoH”.  Also not gonna happen, for what should be obvious reasons.

While ear-on-my-rear was still being considered, I read an article by Wendy Tirabassi Kast, a Facebook friend with hearing loss. I was inspired by Wendy’s blog about her new tattoo, which was a full color job and twice as large as what I eventually got. I decided to get a koruchlea. It’s a made-up word, pronounced ko-roo-klee-uh, combining koru and cochlea.

silverfernThe koru (“loop”) is a strong symbol in Māori art and culture, and its spiral shape comes from the unfurling frond of the New Zealand silver fern. The koru represents new life, growth, strength and peace, all traits that I value.

The cochlea is the part of the inner ear that turns sound vibrations into electrical impulses which the brain then interprets. The cochlea’s beautiful spiral shape is often used by marketers in the hearing loss world as a symbol of hearing, and it’s especially beautiful when it works the way it’s supposed to.  My inner ears don’t work very well, which is why I use hearing aids, and soon I will have a cochlear implant to replace the particularly faulty system of my right ear. To me, the cochlear spiral is a symbol of communication which is even more valuable than hearing. Regardless of how successful my implant is, I will continue to use all the tools at my disposal to communicate with the people in my life.cochlea

I loved the joint symbolism of the koru and the cochlea and this past weekend, Joel and I went for our tat-buddy adventure. It did hurt a bit, and I admit to having panicky, second thoughts as the tattoo artist (whose own body art resembled William Morris wallpaper) started his job. 

But today, I like it, although a bit uneasy that it might be upside down. Otherwise, the koruchlea is my personal, permanent reminder to be open and brave—to ditch the stigma of hearing loss—and that communication, regardless of how well we actually hear, is the most important thing between two people and their world.

That thought gives me strength and peace.

   The Koruchlea

The Koruchlea


Do you use captioning?  On TV, perhaps, or in the theater, or on internet videos?  Perhaps you enjoy CART (Communication Access RealtimeTranslation) at live events?  

It’s not easy to explain the simple power of turning the captions “ON” for people who have difficulty hearing the spoken word. It’s the difference between dark and light, confusion and clarity, misinterpretation and understanding. Instead of being locked outside in a storm, we’re chatting with friends around a fire.

In whatever form we use it, captioning brings the spoken word to life. It turns blah-de-blah-de-ya-da into meaningful conversation. It gives us access to people, and that’s what we’re all here for, right? So what happens when we lose the words, when there’s no captioning to fill in the blanks? 

Watching the Rio Olympics for 10 days, captions told me what was going on in the events—especially helpful if you don’t understand the finer points of a sport, or the rules, or even what they have to do to win. Captioning keeps people like me in the game. Otherwise all I see is a bunch of guys or girls running around, attached to paddles, balls or bicycle handles. They’re jumping up in the air or down in the water. It’s easy enough to tell from the players’ faces and the crowd’s reactions that points have been scored or the game has been won. But when the TV camera angles aren’t good or if the camera isn’t on the commentator’s face, I need captioning.

Captions in the right place

Captions in the right place

And the caption wasn’t problem-free, either. Those lovely strings of words often covered the athletes’ faces or feet of players or—even worse—the score box in the upper left corner of the screen.  I could see the tippy-tops of the numbers and, ridiculously, I caught myself trying to peer over the captioning, as if I could see behind it to the score. (Reminds me of the woman with hearing loss who told me that, in a heated conversation with her hearing husband, she found herself looking sideways at the TV to see if by some miracle, there were captions of their conversation!)   

But as imperfect as it was, the captioning gave me the inside scoop from the commentators:  “Nerves are starting to show.” “Whoa, that mistake is going to haunt him for the rest of his life.” “Beautiful form—but is it enough to win?” “Folks, this match is about as good as it gets.” Without that insight, beach volleyball would have been nothing more than a collection of oiled, sandy muscles and cool sunglasses.

But real life is a not a captioned event.  When the technology goes off, so do the captions. Two days later I was sitting on a real beach, watching my son play in a volleyball tournament. No captions and no commentary, because my husband wanted to focus on the game and not have to repeat everything twice. I managed to figure it out and just enjoyed seeing my son’s passion for the sport.Joel vball

We can follow rapid-fire TV conversations because the captioning keeps up, more or less. It’s not always perfect in live TV, because the speakers aren’t perfect; they talk fast, stepping on each other’s words and even the hearing people have trouble following. But at a real life dinner party, we get knocked to the sidelines almost immediately, because our heads can’t swivel fast enough to follow the lips. Technology is improving daily; I think captioned dinner parties are still in the future, but there are wonderful new voice-to-text apps that caption a two person conversation amazingly well.

Here’s where captioning would make my life better and easier:

  • In a store, when the salesperson is ringing up a sale—why do they always seem to say something just as you lean over to punch in your numbers? The captions could show on a little tablet beside the cash register and debit machines.
  • In-flight service: not the safety demo—I’ve heard so many that I could give it myself if the flight attendant needed a break—but whatever the captain or first officer decide to yammer on about. I can usually catch “ 39,000 feet…” and hope it means what it usually means. The captain’s captions could appear on the screen in front of my seat. (Airlines, I hope you’re taking notes as you read this!)
  • Grocery store announcements—what special am I missing out on? I want the same notice that there’s a 2-for-1 coconut milk special as everyone else. LED screens at the end of each aisle would be awesome. And as for what the cashier is saying, see the first point above.

We love captioning. Life without it puts us off-track, confuses us and exhausts us. Sometimes we just throw up our hands and tune out. But when it is available, we use it and are grateful. Now, we want more of it, in more places.