My great-grandmother, Hannah Schwarck Price, was a strong, resourceful woman who was profoundly deaf. This resourcefulness was forced on her through her hearing loss and a husband who abandoned her to raise their children. A woman who was a divorcee in the late early 1900s was uncommon. A single parent with a significant disability was even more rare.
Despite her invisible disability, my great-grandmother was a continuous story of determination and perseverance. She didn’t wear hearing aids or know American Sign Language. But she learned to read lips, which is a common skill among people who are hearing impaired.
When my mother began to make her transition from life to death, her dreams were filled with my great-grandmother (her grandmother). She was a symbol of comfort and courage for my mother about to embark on an unknown journey.
My mother experienced ototoxicity from long use of prescription opioid and other pain medications. Unlike her grandmother, she wore hearing aids.
Paying for hearing aids
Hearing aids are an expensive medical device. They range in cost from $1,000 to $4,000. Very few insurance plans cover hearing aids and if they do it’s usually only for children. Traditional Medicare, the insurance plan for the elderly, doesn’t cover them at all. And the elderly is the largest demographic to need hearing aids. Insurance companies define hearing aids as optional medical devices and so they see it as optional coverage. On the other hand, insurance companies will cover the more invasive procedure of cochlear implants. Cochlear implants are recommended for people with severe to profound hearing loss.
Just last week, a professor in South Africa performed the world’s first inner ear surgery using 3D technology, essentially restoring a patient’s hearing. The procedure may prove to be a long-term solution to conductive hearing loss.
People who have moderate hearing loss yet do not want surgery benefit from hearing aids. Correcting hearing loss, even mild loss, can prevent or delay cognitive decline. Some nonprofits, such as the Hearing Aid Project, offer grants for low-income families. You can find a complete list of groups who help people with hearing impairments through the Hearing Loss Association of America. Also, students with disabilities may be eligible to receive them for free as part of their Individual Educational Plan for assistive technology.
When my mother died, we refurbished hers for my husband to use.
Tinnitus and How It Roars, Buzzes, and Hums
My husband’s hearing loss began with the onset of tinnitus.
It puts him to sleep like a white noise machine but wakes him up like a phone call in the middle of the night, especially when he is under stress. When people lose their hearing, the brain creates substitute noise to fill the silence. This is known as tinnitus.
Meditation, mindfulness, and hypnosis have been shown to reduce tinnitus. These methods reduce the experience of stress. Increased stress forces attention to uncomfortable situations, creating an unrelenting cycle of continued distress. Deep relaxation states prompt the brain to turn its attention to other domains, thus reducing the focus on the tinnitus.
Katherine Bouton in her book Shouting Won’t Help describes her tinnitus this way: “I have it easy, and in fact kind of like my tinnitus: it changes pitch from time to time, an ethereal deep outer space keening.” Silence is the paradoxical element for people with hearing impairment. External sounds are silenced by hearing loss, yet internal noise is increased. For people with normal hearing, periods of silence are a restorative measure for an overstimulated brain.
Hearing Loss and Communication
People with hearing loss have the capacity to communicate in a variety of ways. My great-grandmother learned to understand another’s communication through lip-reading. Other people use writing as a form of communicating their thoughts. People with hearing impairment can watch a feature-length moving with audio captioning. The “backbone” of the deaf culture is American Sign Language. It is viewed as a first language for profoundly deaf people and as an acquired second foreign language for people with no hearing impairments.
Recently, I met a student with no hearing disabilities who is taking American Sign Language as an elective. Her goal is to be a sign language interpreter, an occupation with demand expected to grow by 46 percent by 2022. American Sign Language is a bridge language as it is also an effective language for people who experience aphasia, an impairment of language. Many children with autism are taught American Sign Language so they can better communicate their needs. In fact, outcomes are showing that children who are taught American Sign Language are better able to acquire verbal skills.
Hearing the Sounds of Silence
Silence is difficult to experience in today’s connected world. Noise is the number one cause of hearing loss. Constant ambient noise buzzes in the background. You don’t notice it until hums of refrigerators are silenced in a power outage. From high to low pitches, decibel levels can severely impact a person’s hearing health. Noise can severely impact a person’s overall health. In psychological operations, music is blared nonstop at prisoners of war. The United Nations and European Court of Human Rights have banned this practice.
Are there any quiet places left on Earth? Anechoic chambers are laboratories designed to have no reverberations or echoes. They are the quietest man-made environments used to test products for their acoustical properties. Echoes are an important sound dynamic because they help orient a person to his or her environment for depth and distance. Vertigo, or the sensation of dizziness or losing balance, can be another indication of hearing loss.
External silence hasn’t been a barrier to many famous actors, such as Marlee Matlin, and musicians. Many musicians lose their hearing because of the constant assault of their music in loud concerts. Even within their silence, though, they produce sound which entertain and soothe the rest of the world. Beethoven composed some of his finest pieces when he was almost totally deaf. Today, with more known on how to protect hearing, many older musicians, such as Eric Clapton, make it a regular practice to wear earplugs during their concerts.
As one of the five senses, hearing is vital. Nature gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason, so we will listen twice as much as we talk. Safeguarding your hearing is important to your health for numerous reasons. Yet, losing your hearing doesn’t have to cut you off from the world. Instead, losing the noise of the external world can introduce you to the sounds of silence.
“Can we hear you now?”
Copyright 2019, Brenda Henning