Understanding Hearing Loss

When I started dating Alex and learned of his hearing loss, I thought that everything just sounded quieter to him. I knew he had a hard time hearing and understanding me when I wasn’t looking at him (because he couldn’t read my lips), and I thought that I just needed to speak louder when talking to him. I thought that he could understand everything, but it just needed to be louder to hear better. I thought that his hearing aids amplified everything evenly. I had no idea, it just seemed to make sense to me.

In the years that I’ve been with Alex, and with Luke’s recent diagnosis, I’ve tried to research and better understand what it means to be hard of hearing. And, I found out that I was way off the mark with what I thought I knew.

Sound is made up different frequencies. An article I’ve read likens the frequencies in sound to the colors of a picture. The different shades of blues will blend together with the different shades of greens to create a spectrum of colors that make up an image. The frequency of sound is the same. There is a blend of frequencies across noises and speech that create what the ear hears. A hearing test determines how well a person can hear each frequency using pure tones. The hearing test will also determine at what decibel a person can detect language. A hearing test does not tell you how well a person can decipher and understand spoken language. There’s a huge difference between detection and understanding.

Luke's Hearing Loss

Consonants tend to be spoken at a higher pitch (higher frequency) than vowels. If the person can’t hear higher frequencies well (as the case for Alex), the consonants tend to sound the same if they are even heard at all. Depending on the amount of loss for each frequency, speech sounds jumbled and garbled – sometimes unrecognizable. It’s been described as sounding ‘muddy’. Imagine trying to learn to talk when speech is completely jumbled. It’s a feat that I have a hard time comprehending.

Click here for a sound clip to see what a high frequency hearing loss sounds like.

Click here to hear the clip without distortion.

Modern hearing aids are better than what Alex grew up with. When Alex was a child, his hearing aids amplified all frequencies evenly. He hated them because he didn’t need amplification of all frequencies. The high frequencies were amplified enough, but the low frequencies were too loud. Speech was still garbled. Technology has improved by leaps and bounds since the days of Alex’s early hearing aids. The kind he wears now (and the kind that Luke wears) have channels of frequencies that can each be programmed to amplify depending on the amount of loss for that frequency band. The hearing aids help, but they aren’t perfect. The person still has to concentrate on who is talking and what is being said. It’s still hard to hear behind them and loud environments, such as restaurants, make it even harder to comprehend what is being said.

As a person with normal hearing, I have had a really hard time understanding the effects of hearing loss and the implications from it. And, from what I can tell, I’m not alone with this struggle. When I found out that having a hearing loss isn’t simply a ‘volume’ issue, it’s a clarity problem, a light bulb went off. I realized exactly how big of a hill Alex climbed to learn to speak correctly, and what Luke is up against. I also realized how much of a struggle everyday communication is for both of my boys. I hope that by having a better understanding of Alex and Luke’s hearing loss, I can be a more supportive part of their world. I also hope that by sharing what I’ve learned that people in general gain a better understanding (and tolerance) of hearing loss and the individuals that suffer from it.

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