What goes through your mind when you notice that shiny arc of silver behind the ear of someone you don’t know?

If you’re a hearing person, you might think, “OK, that person is hard of hearing” and that’s the end of it. Especially if you’re standing behind him or her in the grocery checkout, or you’re both pushing shopping carts in the aisle – there’s no need for any further action and your brain moves on.

If, however, there’s some reason to talk with the hearing aid user – you might be the grocery cashier, or the person’s cart is blocking your way to get at the ketchup – that hearing aid might influence what you say and how you say it. You’ll be prepared for a ‘pardon me’, in which case you’ll repeat yourself, perhaps just a little louder. (What you won’t say, if they mention their hearing loss, is ‘sorry’. You’ll be tempted to say it, but don’t. There’s no need. It’s just one of those air-filler phrases, because you’ve done nothing to be sorry for, and people with hearing loss don’t want you to apologize. You’re welcome.)

But if you also have hearing loss, you’ll notice a stranger’s hearing aid almost immediately – your eye goes directly to it. “Here I am!” it calls. Because whether you realize it or not, you’re trained to look at ears. Ears and hearing (or lack of it) and technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implant sound processors have become very interesting, important things in your life.

In my single days, when any random guy entered my line of sight, my eyes would slide to his ring finger on a quick intelligence-gathering mission; why waste precious flirting time with someone who is spoken for? Years later, I still look at people’s ring fingers, simply because I like people-watching, but it’s no longer the first thing I look at. These days, my first glance aims higher, scanning ears and heads for hearing technology, to see who might be one of “my people”.

But if I do see a hearing aid, I usually say nothing to its owner – partly because I haven’t yet come up with any good opening lines.

“You too, huh?”

“So, I see you have a Thing. How’s that working out for you?”

“Hey, you’ve got a cochlear implant! Me, too! Wanna get a coffee?”

It’s also none of my business. Any of these approaches could set a stranger back ten years if they are not yet in a ‘good place’ about their hearing loss. Just when they had almost convinced themselves that the thing in their ears or on the side of their head is not very noticeable, a hearing loss evangelist accosts them in the bakery section.

So, I often say nothing—although if I can catch their eye, I’ll raise my chin in recognition and then move on, leaving the stranger to wonder why I did this—should they know me from somewhere? If they see my own hearing aid that I’m bobble-heading in their direction, the penny may drop. But even so, I don’t expect them to smile appreciatively in recognition; not everyone wants to be in the hearing loss club, especially if membership comes with a bumper sticker, T-shirt and a secret sign that you’re expected to share with anyone sporting a hearing aid or sound processor.

But!

If I do get an opening to discuss hearing loss and technology with strangers, I take it. Always. Even if it means listening to the person complain about the price of hearing aids, or how they didn’t really need it but their wife made them get it, the connection is made and they’ll know that, for at least one other person, wearing a hearing aid and/or sound processor is not only “ok”, it makes life better. 

The next time you’re shopping for condiments, and you see that little arc behind an ear, what are you going to say or do?

 

 

Optimists see the silver lining in the dark clouds.  Creative people  people make lemonade out of lemons.  Determined people make that lemonade – then sell it and share it. Meet my friend Laura Mather. 

 

by Laura Mather

 

Noisy workplace

Sudden onset hearing loss

Family genetics predisposed to more hearing loss

Cochlear implant

Near-total bilateral deafness

 

The above is the bare bones timeline of how I became profoundly hard of hearing, covering a period of 30 plus years of gradually discovering the gift of hearing loss. Because it is a gift to have a challenge to rise to, to develop compensatory skills that replace cues that used to be provided by my ears, in order to tell what is happening in the world. 

My hearing loss has gifted me with heightened lipreading skills, greater body (kinetic) awareness of environmental cues, and a super-developed attention span – with the ability to stay engaged during long conversations by guessing what word comes next, what makes sense given what has already happened, and focusing on all the tiny details that make up audio communication – including that smallish part which is the actual spoken word.

Hearing loss has taken me places I never realized I wanted to go – sharing my story with others, morphing from being a user of personal assistive listening devices to turning that knowledge into a career supporting businesses to create ‘Hearing Friendly’ workplaces and client communication.

When I started my business, POW Hearing, I asked myself: “Do I want my life’s work to be about fixing people’s attitudes towards hearing loss, and fighting for understanding and support in the workplace, marketplace, and community for people who, like me, have audio accessibility needs?” “Do I want to spend my energies in the ‘disability’ field, working with ‘The Hearing Impaired’?”

No, I didn’t. I would rather work with businesses that already understand their role in providing an accessible place to work in and communicate with their clients. In this way, I support individuals who have hearing loss by creating opportunity for engagement where before there was none.

I don’t use the terms ‘the disabled’ or ‘the hearing impaired’ because having hearing loss is not synonymous with being a disabled person.  Hearing loss only becomes a disability if a person is disadvantaged by not being able to fully understand and engage. With the right supports, everyone, regardless of hearing ability, can communicate fully and not be at a disadvantage. Additionally, I believe the term ‘impaired’ is a negative and self-limiting label.

 

Developing my hearing loss ‘gift’

I was born with perfect hearing, but I didn’t appreciate how special this was until it was gone. And it would be awhile before I learned to see my progressive, late-onset hearing loss as a gift.

At 21 years of age, after not protecting my hearing while working in a noisy carpet factory, I immediately lost 25% hearing in both ears. It was no big thing being slightly hard of hearing – or so I thought. 

But by age 30, when I started university, I struggled. Receiving audio information in real time, understanding new concepts clearly, using new knowledge, and retaining it – was exhausting!  Prioritizing became a full-time job, along with finding hearing access supports and funding (i.e., self advocating), employing support staff, and finding enough hours in the day to transcribe literally every tape-recorded lecture during my first year of school.  Hearing had become hard work and education is not easy when you can’t hear audio information. 

Later, as a mom of two young children, my hearing loss was becoming worse – probably due to genetics – as all of my uncles have those high-end hearing aids!  It became challenging to understand what my children were saying. They weren’t old enough to spell, or to “say another word with the same meaning for mummy, please”. By the time they were 8 and 6, I literally couldn’t take my eyes off them, because as my hearing deteriorated, I become more dependent on my speechreading skills.

 

Audio accessibility career by default

When I decided to re-enter the workforce, I realized that customers didn’t like having their space invaded when I got close to hear them, and they expected me to understand all spoken words, no matter how fast or which direction they came from. With my hearing loss progressing, the best solution was a cochlear implant. 

In September of 2008, I was implanted, and suddenly either I or my conversation partner could turn away while talking, because I could (mostly) understand their words!  In 2009 I completed a post-graduate degree; graduating top of my class in HR Management. 

Today, I wouldn’t be helping businesses to provide audio accessibility – ‘Hearing ‘Friendly’ spaces – if I myself had not been shut out of the conversation. No one wanted to hire me after graduating in 2009 – they only wanted to ask me what I could NOT do, given my hearing loss. I decided to take my hearing loss gifts and pay it forward.  Using my lived experience, and business knowledge of audio accessibility through the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), I started my business creating ‘Hearing Friendly’ workplaces and customer service environments.     

I am thankful everyday for my hearing loss, the experiences life has given me as I navigate life in a hearing world, and the opportunity to share what I have learned.  Hearing loss has truly been a gift that keeps on giving. 

 

Laura Mather lives in Toronto.