My audiologist is a Very Important Person in my life. She’s not at the very top of my “Favourite People” list – that’s reserved for family, close friends and the cats – but she’s close to it, because she helps me live a good, communication-rich life.
This philosophy makes me a bit of an oddball. The very fact that I use the services of an audiologist puts me in the minority among my universal brothers and sisters with hearing loss. A recent study by Dr. Frank Lin shows that only 14% of people who could benefit from hearing aids actually have them. And according to the ASHA-AARP National Hearing Health Poll of 2300 adults aged 50+, over 75% of respondents say that hearing health is important to them, yet half reported having a hearing loss for which they had not sought help.
Apparently, I’m also unusual because I’m happy with my audiologist. If she doesn’t have the answer to a question such as, “On the plane, my t-switch causes electrical hum, so how am I supposed to watch the movie?”, she will do her best to find out. (Now, I simply use large, over-the-ear headphones, positioning them to minimize feedback.)
On the rare occasion I’m in the market for a new provider, I know what to look for beyond quality service and successful technology. Is she or he clearly knowledgeable about hearing loss and its real-life barriers? Is she or he willing to find solutions for out-of-the-ordinary technical or other communication problems? If a provider can help me in these areas, then I’m willing to help them with any of their weaker skills, such as knowing how to actually talk to a person with hearing loss.
When I got my first hearing aid, I had complete trust in Ms. Fothergill, my very first hearing instrument specialist, because I had no preconceived notions of what a provider should offer. I was just so gosh-darn happy to finally get a hearing aid! She could have told me that this huge beige contraption would, unfortunately, make me look like the Wicked Witch of the West, and I would have responded, “Oh, but that’s always been my DREAM, Ms. Fothergill, thank you so much!”
Through the years, I’ve worked with a few professionals. Many/most are wonderful, but I’ve learned that not all hearing professionals are built alike.
In one memorable hearing assessment, the audiologist was either in a bad mood, struggling with new equipment, or had failed her Audiology counseling course. All I know is that she didn’t nurture me; at one point, she pressed the button and her sharp voice filled the torture chamber, “Ms. Kennedy, I don’t think you’re trying very hard.” Now, any experienced harda-hearing person knows that after a few minutes of raising our hand to perceived sounds, our heads are jammed with beeps and noise – we can’t tell what’s real and what ain’t. So, sometimes we guess – partly because we don’t want to fail the test, and partly because we worry that, if we sit there like sullen lumps, we will be referred for psychological assessment.
She may have considered this option anyway, because after her insensitive comment, I ripped off my headphones and started crying, “Excuse me!? I am trying VERY hard – how dare you say that to me?” She apologized and tried to calm me down, but that was the end of our relationship.
Then there was a favorite audiologist who had one unfortunate habit. He would chat to me while cleaning my hearing aids, even though I was temporarily deaf and unable to read his lips. And I know he was talking to me because, as he worked with his back to me, I could see his head talk-bobbing and he kept turning to smile at me, possibly waiting for an answer to a question I had not heard. Fortunately, he was trainable and he flourished under my care. We parted company only because he moved away.
I visit my audiologist regularly, but I know that many people with hearing loss never or seldom darken the door of a hearing professional. The reasons are well-documented: denial that hearing loss exists, the stigma that ties hearing loss to dementia or aging, the belief that their condition is not serious enough to warrant help (“it’s part of life”), resistance to hearing aids (high cost, appearance, distrust of effectiveness) and a belief that hearing health professionals “only want to sell me a hearing aid”.
Hearing-related organizations (professional and consumer) and governments need to work harder to remove barriers to effective hearing help. Unaddressed hearing loss lowers a person’s quality of life and the collective impact of an aging population with hearing loss is becoming significant. I’ve been hard of hearing since birth, but it’s only been in the last 15 years, with the help of professionals and other consumers, that I’ve really come to understand my hearing loss and learned how to knock down a few barriers of my own. I’m a crackerjack speechreader, know how to control my communication environment, can express my needs and I have a mostly positive attitude.
But for the person who is new to this frightening world of hearing loss, these skills don’t automatically happen. It takes time – and support. There’s stuff we just can’t do on our own. I am not able to self-administer hearing tests. I cannot self-prescribe hearing aids, and I can’t repair them either (tried that once, a disaster). If I was upset and anxious about my new hearing loss, it wouldn’t be easy to calm myself down and approach the issue rationally.
As a person with hearing loss, I need to admit my hearing loss and be open to professional support – and it’s the job of the hearing health provider to help me put it all together. Through trial and error, I have learned that a good hearing health professional is someone who listens to me, validates my concerns, understands my challenges and discusses solutions with me.
And THAT’s how I came to love my audiologist.
Next Week: Me & My Audie – How The Consumer & Professional Must Work Together