It’s not every Monday morning you wake up to the sound of the dawn chorus and your first thought is “What would it be like not to be able to hear this?” But then it’s not every day you wake up knowing you’re going to be deaf for a portion of the day.
When Specsavers asked me to take the ‘Deaf for a Day’ challenge I was intrigued, but apprehensive. How would I cope with not being able to hear? Would I be able to work and go about my business for the day? Would it be safe for me to drive or even cross the road? How would I communicate?
Audiologist at Specsavers Hearing Centre Athlone, Lynn Morris explains that hearing loss is an “invisible” disability.
“It is not physically obvious and people can be clever at hiding it. They might feel as if they are ‘failing’ in some way, that it is a sign they are getting older, or that the problem is elsewhere, for example other people are mumbling. It takes an average of 10 years for someone to address a hearing problem,” she tells me.
The idea of the Deaf for a Day challenge was to give me some sense of the issues faced daily by those experiencing hearing loss. Lynn started with a quick check of my ears and a hearing test, before inserting putty-like impressions into my ears. While I would still be able to hear a certain amount, the impressions blocked out the majority of sounds.
The first thing I noticed was the complete absence of background noise. I immediately felt sealed into my own world. As I set out to walk to work, all I could hear was the thump-thump of my feet. While I had been warned to be careful crossing the road, I still got a fright every time a car passed by that I hadn’t heard approaching.
Back at the office, I could just about hear others speak if they were close to me. Within a couple of minutes I had already missed people trying to get my attention, and a colleague had resorted to writing me a note. I felt guilty to be impacting on their work, and a bit dim when I had to ask them to repeat themselves. When I spoke, I had no idea what volume it was at.
I found I could hear snippets of conversations and noises, but I couldn’t figure out what direction they were coming from and I felt disorientated. It wasn’t long before I found myself starting to develop little coping strategies. I tried to watch my colleagues out of the corner of my eye, in case they needed to get my attention. I made sure I could see people when they were speaking to me - it helped to read their facial expressions. And even though my colleagues knew that I was doing this challenge, at times I found myself just nodding along and hoping it was the right reaction. I also found my mind drifting off as I struggled to keep up with conversations.
Lynn had explained to me that people who suffer from hearing loss often develop coping mechanisms, such as lip reading, to attempt to hide their hearing loss. They can also become increasingly isolated.
“It can be very debilitating. People find they are not able to chat in a social environment, and they begin to retreat and avoid social outings. Untreated hearing loss can lead to depression and in severe cases can contribute to dementia. It also impacts on relationships, and can be quite stressful for a partner or family members,” she explained.
However, once treated for hearing loss, people often feel they should have taken steps to tackle it years before.
“Hearing loss is not something you have to tolerate. Once it is addressed it lifts a huge weight off the shoulders. It hugely improves quality of life, and people find they are no longer isolated.”
The best way I could describe the whole experience is that I was on edge. I was jumpy, and constantly waiting for someone to come up behind me. My anxiety levels soared when conversations were going on around me, as I had to really concentrate to try and keep up. I felt slow and useless. I couldn’t use the phone, couldn’t communicate properly, and I was utterly exhausted after a couple of hours.
Being ‘deaf’ for a day certainly offered me a window into some of the challenges experienced by those suffering from hearing loss, and I can only imagine how these issues would be compounded over time.
Specsavers Hearing Centre in Golden Island, Athlone is open from Monday to Saturday, with two full-time audiologists and top-of-the-range equipment. An initial assessment takes about an hour, and you are free to bring a family member or friend along for support. Hearing tests are free, and hearing aids are available in a range of different sizes, styles, and budgets. In many cases they can be fitted on the same day as your test.
For more information or to book an appointment, contact Specsavers Athlone on (090 ) 6473100, or visit www.specsavers.ie/hearing