My Hearing Loss: One Fork in the Road after Another

By Ruth Ilean Fox

My life with hearing has been an interesting adventure with many twists and turns.  

Hearing loss started at birth, 70 years ago, and progressed from mild to profound over 25 years. My speech developed normally, except for the “L” and “R” sounds, so my loss was not significant until around the age of four when children typically learn those sounds. When I started school, hearing loss was a barrier to conversations with friends, to instruction from teachers, and to unity within my family, as I was just one of three siblings with hearing loss. Like many people in the 1950s my parents did not understand the impact of hearing loss in children. While I failed hearing screening tests given at school, my parents observed a child who seemed to hear, but was extremely temperamental and did not follow directions very well. Hearing loss and its effect is invisible even to the child who has it. I had no idea that I was different from my peers – I just remember being isolated, unhappy, and frustrated.

But there was a benefit of my hearing loss: I liked to spend time alone and developed a musical talent for the violin, which I heard better than speech. I spent many hours practicing and became an excellent violinist. This musical ability belied the degree and impact of my increasing hearing loss. I was 17 before receiving my first hearing aids and speech training for the missing “L” and “R” sounds. The day I got my first hearing aid, a late winter snow created a mess on the road. For the first time in my life, I heard the sound of slush in the tires of the car. 

Being in total denial of my decreasing hearing, I chose music for my college major. I did very well, but the year after graduation, I could no longer hear the sound of the full orchestra, let alone my violin. I was now an adult but was functioning at the emotional and social age of an early teen. Many changes were necessary for me to survive because my intelligence hid my inability to interact socially. With the help of mental health services, I spent the next 10 years working hard to grow up.

After my hearing loss ended my music career, I completed studies for a Master’s Degree in Librarianship. It was not a match; libraries were too quiet for me to hear the words of people requesting services and working in technical services put me asleep. Time for another change and I headed back to school to pursue Education. To pay for my studies I worked as a teacher aide in a center that served children with special needs. I fell in love with these children and this was a perfect match: they could not speak and I could not hear. After receiving my K-12 regular education and special education certifications, I began a 25-year career as a special education teacher; loving it and the children. 

Thirteen years into my teaching career, my hearing loss again became an issue. A strong body hearing aid, set at maximum output, enabled me to use my remaining residual hearing, supported by my lipreading skills. Eventually even that hearing was gone and communication with my staff and students’ parents became inefficient. This was 1986 and I was not aware of any alternatives other than using sign language, which no one in my life used.

I was receiving occasional newsletters from centers where I volunteered as a research subject, and for the first time I heard about cochlear implants (CI). I had never met anyone who had been implanted (at this time there were only about 3000 recipients in the world) and research was difficult because the internet did not yet exist. In desperation, I went to the second convention of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (now the Hearing Loss Association of America) in Palo Alto, where I met two people with cochlear implants. 

Motivated by this experience, I began my CI journey in 1987.  At activation of my cochlear implant, I was greatly discouraged; what I heard sounded like a cage full of squawking parakeets. Soon my hearing through the CI became a daily miracle as I heard, learned and recognized new sounds in life around me.  Three months after activation, I was talking comfortably with staff and parents, both in person and on the telephone and I was beginning to enjoy music again! The intense depression that had consumed much of my life began to evaporate. Socially I gained confidence. I found love and married the most wonderful man who helps to make my life complete.

I remain hard of hearing, but auditory blissfully functional. Where some might see roadblocks, I always see forks in the road that offer choice and improvement.

Photo by Ruth Ilean Fox

Ruth Ilean Fox lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband Gary.  

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks Ruth for sharing your story. The fork in the road is a positive metaphor. You showed resilience and flexibility to find a new calling after the loss of your music career. I am glad you have some music back in your life. I have had a CI for less than a year. Conversation is much easier but progress is slower when it comes to music. I will keep at it. Best wishes to you.

    1. Hi Ian, Thank you for your kind comments. Regarding music, it is often hard for a CI recipient to hear music as the CI’s are designed for speech recognition. I learned to hear music the same way I learned to hear speech by working from the simple to the complex. I went from hearing only an octave of pitches on the piano to hearing the entire range of notes, and from recognizing the timbre of the woodwind instruments to enjoying the full range of a concert organ, which took about 4 years to enjoy. Incidentally the organ is one of my favorite instruments. It takes patience and endurance, but the rewards are great. Technology is improving all of the time making it easier for us to reach hearing goals if we work at it. There are a few lucky people out there who hear clearly and enjoy music very quickly, but most of us have to work at it. Enjoy your CI journey; everyday can be a miracle as we recognize new sounds.

    1. HI Sharon, I actually did play in an orchestra a few times after receiving the CI. Being in my 70’s and dealing with the affects of a muscular dystrophy, I enjoy being a member of the audience while the younger generations shares their talents.

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