The Perils of Hearing Less in the Classroom [en]

As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.

In another lifetime I was a middle-school teacher. It only lasted for two years, but at that time I thought it might be my career.

I didn’t wear hearing aids then. Of the many difficulties I faced teaching classes of teenagers, I think some of them did have their root in my hearing loss.

First of all, I couldn’t understand soft-spoken students, and often had to make them repeat themselves. Uncomfortable for me, and also for them, especially if they were shy. The accompanying snickers from the rest of the class were certainly not a positive thing for the class atmosphere or my relationship with them.

I also had trouble when students made low-voiced comments or “talked back” in such a way that everybody could hear but me. It does make it difficult to ensure classroom rules are followed when so much can go on under your threshold of perception.

At the time, I didn’t realise how “bad” my hearing was (I knew I had some hearing loss). I didn’t realise that my colleagues heard that much more, and therefore had more information at hand to help them manage the class. Not hearing well clearly was not my only shortcoming in teaching teenagers, but I probably blamed myself more than I should have for the difficulties rooted in “not hearing things”.

classroom-940x492_10282015

You know how colds can block your ears a bit? In my case, as my hearing loss falls pretty much smack in the middle of the “speech banana”, temporary cold-related hearing loss often made me incapable of understanding anything that was said in the classroom.

We know how hard it is for adults to change the way they express themselves to compensate for somebody’s hearing loss, so imagine teenagers!

I now don’t teach teenagers anymore, and not so regularly. The social media classes I give today are either for undergraduate students (technically past their teens) or actively working adults. I wear hearing aids, but that doesn’t solve everything.

These last two years, I gave a course which took place in what I can only term an acoustically disastrous room. Echoey, of course, big, and to top it all, uncomfortably hot on a sunny day, with windows that opened on the noise of the city.

Students sitting in the front row are rarely a problem. I usually move around in the classroom when I’m talking to somebody, avoiding “across-the-room” conversations. So when the classroom is organised in solid rows of tables you cannot walk through, communicating with the students sitting in the back row can be a bit of a problem.

And, ever the same problem: the third time you ask somebody to repeat something in front of everybody because you haven’t understood what they’re saying, things start getting tense.

Of course, I always tell my students about my hearing loss. I explain that if I ask them to repeat something, it’s because I couldn’t hear them well enough to understand. I remind them to make a particular effort to speak loud enough, particularly if they are sitting in the back rows. I ask them to raise their hand or get my attention before speaking.

But it’s not enough. And these difficulties become a real problem when a student is being rude or challenging an idea I’ve brought to the classroom. I’ve been accused at times of shutting down conversations and not accepting debate, but how can you debate or have a conversation when you can’t understand what the other person is saying?

I also realise that depending on the teaching context, my hearing loss pushes me towards “teacher-speaking” and “work in groups” types of teaching, to the detriment of more “class interactive” formats, which I actually appreciate. I had the opportunity over the last year to give a series of short workshops to small groups of people (around 10), and all though I did end up speaking a lot of the time (hah!) I really did appreciate the group discussions we were able to have.

I had a chat with my audiologist about this particular acoustically disastrous classroom, and she told me that if this was somewhere I was often, we could create a programme especially for it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really worth it, as I would only end up teaching 2-4 days a year in that particular room.

Although I’m not a full-time teacher anymore, I would be really interested in hearing about the experiences other teachers with hearing loss. Does your hearing loss limit you in the “teaching formats” you are able to use with your class? Do you find it puts you at a disadvantage to “manage” the class, particularly with young students? Do you have any compensating tips and tricks to share?

Let us know.

The Friends Who Listen For Me [en]

As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.

While I was writing “Never Mind, It’s Not Important“, I realised I have certain friends who do way more than just avoid brushing me off with a “never mind” when I am in a situation where I struggle to understand what is being said: they will repeat and summarise for me.

This happens especially in group situations where I haven’t managed to position myself optimally, or when the audio quality or acoustics aren’t good.

Having somebody “be my ears” and repeat to me what I need to know is really precious. We’re at the opposite of the “it’s not important” situation I wrote about recently: I am willingly giving up the power to decide what is important or not to somebody else. But the key word here is “willingly”. It is my choice.

Friends-Who-Listen-For-Me

This allows me to relax instead of having to strain, and it also means I won’t be asking the person speaking to the group to repeat stuff that everyone has understood but me.

So, group situations where somebody is giving information/instructions for everybody are a typical scenario — another is dinner parties at restaurant tables. It’s really nice when the person beside me repeats what a more distant person is trying to get across to me when I’m asking them to repeat for the third time. Easier!

I’m very grateful for these people who seem to be able to keep in mind that it’s more difficult for me than them to hear well in tricky situations. And it touches me that they care enough to take the trouble to make life a little bit easier for me.

Thank you.

Never Mind, It’s Not Important [en]

As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.

You’ve read articles about this, right? How we the hearing less don’t appreciate being told “never mind” or “it’s not important” when we’re asking for something we didn’t understand to be repeated.

Since I started wearing hearing aids, I’ve had a few years to reflect on the impact growing up hearing less, first undiagnosed, then underestimated. When I see what a hard time adults sometimes have adjusting their communication habits to my ears, and that I still sometimes fake it despite my fancy cutting-edge hearing aids, I can only imagine what an impact this had on my relationships and ability to socialise as a child.

Some years ago I met up with a few girls I was in kindergarten with. It was really fun to meet them as adults, and we got on great, although we weren’t all exactly friends when we were in school together. I saw them as the “popular” girls and they didn’t seem to be very interested in me. As I was mentioning that, one of them remarked that it wasn’t they didn’t like me, but that I didn’t really speak to them or answer when they spoke to me.

never-mind-it-s-not-important

Shyness? I was shy. But now, I’m thinking I probably didn’t even hear or understand them. And, as another said, “we were five years old”.

What I’m getting at is that when you don’t hear as well as most of the people around you, you are automatically left out to some extent. You don’t have access to the same sound information as everybody else. You miss things. You misunderstand things. And when you are a child or a teenager, you will be mostly dealing with human beings who are probably not very good at taking that into account.

For many years I blamed my social difficulties as a child on being “awkward”, or not socially skilled, or not likeable, or whatnot. So yes, maybe I was a smart nerdy awkward kid, but the more I think of it, the more I’m convinced that my hearing loss played some role in there.

I’m dragging you into my childhood because I think that for those of us who grew up with hearing loss, “never mind” and other “it’s not important” responses hit right upon this sore spot of being left out. For those who lost hearing later in life, it probably hits a slightly different button, the one about losing an ability you had in the past, and not being able to function socially as you used to anymore.

There is something dismissive and patronising in “never mind”. The words being said were words I was expected to hear and understand, that others around heard and understood. They were uttered and audible-to-normal-ears, and as such made available to the hearer for an executive decision about their importance. If it really weren’t important, you wouldn’t have said it, right? And, as I like to point out to people who dismiss social media as “useless chatter”, these seemingly random and unimportant exchanges are the very ones which draw people together and create relationships.

What “never mind” says is “it is not worth the effort to give you access to this information that other people have”. It is not worth including you. And yes, I get it. You might think it’s not worth the effort.

But to me, it means a lot to feel included, to feel that I am worth the effort. Even if it’s just to get confirmation that indeed, it was nothing important.

At least I get to make that call.

Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week [en]

As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.

Tomorrow marks the 135th anniversary of Helen Keller‘s birth. I remember being fascinated by Helen’s story as a young child, full of wonder at how she managed to learn to communicate although she was deaf and blind. (Thought she was born deaf and blind? Check out the myths.)

More recently, whilst exploring the d/Deaf/HoH world online, both out of interest as a hearing aid user and as “blogger-in-chief” of Open Ears, I came upon postings about Usher Syndrome, a rare progressive disease that affects both sight and hearing. They gave me a touch of the fear one could have about losing sight in addition to hearing, particularly if one uses sign language.

In 1984, President Reagan proclaimed the last week of June “Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week” — an occasion to raise awareness about deafblindness and highlight the contributions of those who have this disability. It has since spread to some other anglophone countries.

As my contribution to this awareness week, I’d like to share two videos about young deafblind women with you.

helenkeller-940x492_062015

The first is a documentary produced by and about Brittany, who has been deaf and blind since she was two. She walks us through her life at school and shares her feelings about her disability and relationships with others.

The second is from Molly, who has Usher Syndrome. She has actually set up a charity, the Molly Watt Trust, to advocate and raise awareness about the condition. In her video she tells us about the consequences of being both deaf and blind on her everyday life.

Both are well worth watching and show different faces of deafblindness. There are many others of course, not forgetting those who in old age see their senses fade away to the point where they can no longer make use of them.

About Being Confused [en]

As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been trying out a variety of hearing aids as part of my newly-found “guinea pig” position at Phonak. As a geek, I love playing with new technology and trying things out. As a person with hearing loss, I’m curious about how good things can get for me.

One of the challenges I’ve come upon trying out hearing aid solutions is confusion. You know what happens when you’re shopping for perfumes, and after a (short) while you can’t distinguish smells anymore? That’s a bit what it feels like with sound. Maybe it has to do with the rather strong “habituation” component there is in the way we process sound.

Some situations are clear-cut: for example, after trying out the Bolero Q90 hearing aids for a few weeks, I switched back to my Widex Clear 330 ones to see if I could spot a “reverse difference”. One situation where there was no debate was at the vet’s: I’d been going there regularly throughout my Bolero trial, and when I went back with my Widex aids in, I really struggled to understand what my vet was saying. The room is a bit echoey and she speaks quite fast. To make extra sure I wore the Boleros next time around.

hearing-aid-confusion-phona

I did recall that I’d always found it difficult in that room. Switching programmes, even turning my hearing aids off. But I completely forgot about all this as soon as the situation stopped presenting difficulties with the Q90 aids. See how it goes? We’re prompt to forget and get used to what we have.

Another situation was singing. I sing in my car a lot. With the Widex aids, I’d get “scratchy” noises on some notes when the anti-feedback mechanism kicked in. With the Boleros, no scratchy noises, but annoyingly vibrating notes (anti-feedback mechanism again, I’m told). With Venture, no scratchy noises or vibrating notes — a huge, huge improvement.

A few weeks back I tried “slim tips”, a light type of custom mold, so that I would have better music quality when streaming with my ComPilot. For that, it worked, but when I was singing, I couldn’t hear myself well enough at all. So that was also a clear-cut situation. (We still might be able to improve it, I haven’t abandoned the idea of a more closed fitting altogether.)

But most of the time, specially when we’re tweaking settings, it quickly gets really hard to know if things are better, worse, just different, or even, not different. My poor brain can’t follow.

One problem I identify is that comparison relies on memory. And also that the hearing situations we have problems with are often “out in the real world” and not in the audiologist’s lab. Maybe some form of distance fitting will help solve that — but the fact that we get used to what we’re listening to very fast seems to be here to stay.

On s'habitue [fr]

[en] A few words on habituation and hearing aids.

billet rédigé à Trigance, le 2 août 2012

On a une capacité incroyable à s’habituer. J’y pense maintenant, alors qu’après une journée sans appareils auditifs (je faisais de la randonnée en montagne, toute seule), je range mes cheveux derrière mon oreille après les avoir remis. “Scritchhhh scrtichhh!” — le bruit maintenant familier de mes cheveux qui frottent sur le micro. Ça ne me choque plus. C’est normal. Je suis habituée.

En avril, lorsque je me suis retrouvée pour la première fois avec des appareils sur les oreilles (la tentative avortée de mon adolescence était “intra” ;-)), j’ai été immédiatement horrifiée par le bruit ambiant. Le bruit de mes vêtements, mes cheveux quand je tournais la tête, ma respiration, et surtout, quand j’essayais de ranger une mèche derrière l’oreille.

Heureusement, mon audioprothésiste ne m’a pas laissée longtemps avec ce réglage “optimal selon le fabricant” et a réduit de 8 décibels (!) mon amplification. Assez pour que j’entende mieux que sans appareils, et assez peu pour ne pas être trop gênée par le bruit de fond du monde (et le bruit de fonctionnement de l’appareil).

Si vous m’aviez demandé ce jour-là si j’imaginais un jour pouvoir tolérer ce bruit, je vous aurais probablement répondu “non”. (Bon, j’admets que sachant ce que je sais sur l’habituation, j’aurais probablement concédé que ça faisait partie du possible, même si je peinais à l’imaginer.)

Aujourd’hui, 5 décibels de plus qu’en avril (et un changement de modèle, la gamme d’au-dessus — bobo le porte-monnaie), ces bruits de frottement ne m’incommodent pas. Ni même le bruit de fonctionnement de l’appareil, auquel vraiment j’imaginais ne jamais pouvoir m’habituer, et qui à ma stupéfaction m’est même agréable — quand je l’entends: lorsque je mets mes appareils le matin, et lorsque je suis dans un environnement très silencieux.

Je m’habitue aussi à entendre mieux. Marrant, ça. Il y a des gens dans mon entourage avec qui j’avais une communication très limitée, et je me rends compte maintenant que c’est parce que je les comprenais très mal. J’ai maintenant pris l’habitude de pouvoir interagir confortablement avec elles.

Une catégorie de personnes avec qui c’est flagrant, ce sont les enfants. Je soupçonne que les adultes s’adaptent (peut-être sans s’en rendre compte) au fait que j’entends mal, mais que les enfants ne sont pas vraiment (encore) équipés pour le faire. Ils ne réalisent pas que j’entends mal. Ils parlent doucement, sans me regarder, sans avoir mon attention. Ce sont des enfants. Eh bien depuis que j’ai des appareils, j’ai réalisé que j’interagissais beaucoup plus avec des enfants (connus ou inconnus). La seule explication que je vois, c’est que je suis maintenant en mesure de les comprendre suffisamment pour avoir des échanges significatifs.

Si j’oublie de mettre mes appareils, je me retrouve soudainement dans des interactions où les paroles de l’autre atteignent mon cerveau sous forme de choucroute inintelligible. Il me faut quelques secondes pour comprendre ce qui “ne va pas”: j’ai oublié de mettre mes oreilles! C’est presque inimaginable pour moi de penser que je me suis débrouillée toutes ces années en entendant si peu. Bref, j’ai complètement perdu l’habitude d’entendre mal (enfin, plus mal que maintenant) et de devoir faire les efforts nécessaires pour compenser. Ça se sent d’ailleurs: si je suis sans appareils, mon cerveau fait la grève — je suis probablement moins performante (moins entraînée!) pour compenser.

On s’habitue donc à la présence de quelque chose: des appareils dans mes oreilles auxquels je ne pense plus, d’avoir un univers sonore élargi, comprenant le bruit du frottement de mes cheveux sur mes micros. Mais on s’habitue aussi à l’absence: absence d’efforts à faire, absence de difficulté. On s’habitue aux choses agréables, et aussi à celles qui le sont moins.

J’ai déjà parlé du rôle de l’habituation dans notre recherche du bonheur: c’est cette formidable capacité de s’adapter qui fait que nos circonstances de vie comptent pour si peu (un misérable 10% dit la recherche!) dans notre bonheur. Nos circonstances de vie? Le travail qu’on a, si l’on vit ou non avec le Prince Charmant, pouvoir s’offrir de super vacances ou la dernière TV écran plat, une jolie voiture, vivre dans la maison de ses rêves… Tout ceci est bien joli, mais on s’y habitue.

Quelques mois ou peut-être un an ou deux après avoir fait l’acquisition du dernier objet de nos convoitises, on l’a intégré à notre vie et on n’y prête plus attention. On s’y est habitué. On se marie, on est sur le petit nuage rose, puis ça devient “normal” et si on n’y prête garde, notre bonheur ne s’en nourrit plus. Dans le cadre du couple, on connaît bien le problème de la “routine”: ce n’est que ça, la fameuse habituation. Pour éviter de s’habituer aux bonnes choses, il y a un effort conscient à faire.

On s’habitue aux bonnes choses, et on peut trouver ça dommage, mais le revers de la médaille, c’est qu’on s’habitue aussi merveilleusement bien aux mauvaises choses. Pourquoi faudrait-il s’habituer aux mauvaises choses? Pour pouvoir continuer à aller de l’avant quand le malheur frappe. Pour ne pas être terrassé par l’adversité. Pour survivre. Des exemples? Il y en a partout. Ce sont les cas où l’on dit que le temps fait son oeuvre. Après la mort de son conjoint ou d’un être cher, la vie reprend un jour le dessus. Lorsque notre corps fonctionne moins bien qu’avant (par accident ou maladie), on finit par s’y habituer. Heureusement! Imaginez si chaque jour était comme le lendemain de celui où le malheur débarque! La vie serait insoutenable!

Tout comme la résistance au changement est une réaction naturelle, celle de s’y habituer l’est aussi. Il faut se donner le temps, et souvent le temps suffit. (J’en conviens que ce n’est pas toujours le cas, mais ce sera le sujet d’un autre article.)

Etre conscient de sa capacité naturelle à s’habituer et lui faire confiance permet d’aborder le changement avec plus de sérénité, lorsque l’on sait que l’on devra l’accepter — ou qu’on le désire. Ce n’est pas très compliqué, et on s’économise beaucoup d’agitation inutile.

A quoi vous êtes-vous habitué?

A Week With My Superpower [en]

[fr] Une semaine avec mes super-pouvoirs qui me permettent d'entendre aussi bien qu'un chat 🙂

Last Friday, I stepped into a small shop in the mall near the motorway exit. I walked out with two magic amulets. The moment I started wearing them, I started hearing sounds like I had never heard them before.

I have a superpower: I can listen in on conversations I am not taking part in; I can hear the noise the cat litter makes as it trickles back into the box when I scoop things out; I hear my cat lapping water in the next room, and people moving in the other flats; birds sing so loud and clear they seem to be perched on my shoulder; the rustle of a paper bag or my clothes fills the whole room; I have the ears of a dog.

Best of all, instead of having to reach out to grasp the sounds of speech when I’m talking with somebody, the sound comes to me, crystal clear — right into my ears. I am no longer trying to catch others’ words. They find me, even when I’m not expecting to be talked to, even when I’m not looking at the one producing the words.

OK, I lied a bit — the amulets are not magical, they’re technological. They look like this:

Hearing aid.

(I am thinking of swapping metal grey for pink, though — that part isn’t visible, of course, but I like the idea.)

Those of you who know me well enough know that I do not hear well. I never had. My hearing is particularly deficient in the frequencies used by speech. (I’ll post my audiogram here later, it’s at eclau and I don’t want to walk down the whole two floors to get it ;-)) After a disastrous attempt at getting me hearing aids when I was fourteen (I wore them all of two days) I’ve finally decided to give it another go — and so far, I’m delighted.

I’m actually starting to realize how deaf I am. Or how badly I hear. (Pick your expression of choice.) The audiologist initially programmed the hearing aids to their optimal setting, based on my audiogram. I was shocked. When he spoke to me just after the setting process, I instinctively looked for the microphone he was speaking into. He wasn’t speaking into a microphone.

Imagine you arrive early at the stage, and the band playing the gig is rehearsing with being plugged in. And suddenly somebody plugs in the mikes and the amps. That’s what it felt like. “You have got to be kidding,” I told him. “It’s way too loud.” He told me he was going to run another test to confirm, and as he turned back to the keyboard his pen escaped his hands. You know the sound a pan makes when you drop it on the kitchen floor? Well, that’s pretty much how much noise his pen made.

After running the second test, he confirmed that the settings were right. I was hearing sounds the way somebody with normal hearing hears them. So loud! Way too loud! This is of course a common reaction, and the audiologist always decreases the settings to something more tolerable so the new wearer of hearing aids can get used to them. Usually, he decreases them by 4dB — in my case, by 8dB. And he also reduced amplification of weak sounds to cut out as much background noise as possible.

Given my strong initial reaction to the “optimal” setting and the traumatic teenage failure behind me, we weren’t taking any chances.

One thing I was really worried about was the physical discomfort of having something in my ear. My memory of my first attempt at wearing hearing aids is that they were hugely uncomfortable (of course technology has evolved in 25 years, but still!). I also know I cannot stand the completely occlusive inside-the-ear earbuds — I bought a pair once, listened to music 30 minutes with it, and had to bring it back. It hurt too much.

My audiologist recommended dabbing the part that goes inside the ear with sweet almond oil. It works wonders. The first day I had to remove my hearing aids a couple of times because my ears were tickling. After 2-3 days, no more, though I was happy to remove them at the end of the day. Now, I almost forget about them. I’m actually almost worried that at some point I’ll stop noticing them so much I’ll hop into the bath or the shower without removing them… oopsie.

Even with a setting 8dB below what I should have, it makes a stunning difference to me when I’m talking with people. I actually understand every word. I don’t need to guess anymore. I might even stop watching movies with subtitles, who knows! I keep hearing sounds that I don’t know how to identify yet, so I’ll often end up looking all around me in the bus or street to try to figure out what it is I’m hearing. A friend commented that what I’m going through is probably a bit similar to what happens to babies when they realize that sound is stuff they’re hearing. It’s not all pleasant, of course (loud drunk teenagers in public transport are even louder), but overall I am already at a point where I do not want to not wear them. I’m hooked.

What amazes me, though, is to think that this is still way below how you (well, most of you reading this) hear. I’d love to be able to edit a recording based on my audiogram to make it sound to “normal hearing people” the way it would sound to me. And I’m looking forward to getting sufficiently used to my current settings that we can turn the volume up even a bit more!

Attention Span and Partial Attention [en]

[fr] Est-ce que l'habitude du multitâches devant l'écran m'a fait perdre mes pouvoirs de concentration? J'ai du mal à  suivre les conférences, alors qu'avec dix ans d'uni, on pourrait considérer que j'ai de l'entraînement...

I spent ten years at university. During those years, I attended lectures on a variety of subject, sometimes from 7am to 8pm, taking notes and understanding most of what was said.

What’s wrong with me now? I can’t seem to follow most of the talks given here. I remember having the same problem at BlogTalk 2.0 a couple of years back. Is it the partial attention thing, because of course, I can’t follow what is being said when I’m typing up a post or chatting in a backchannel. Or uploading photos.

Should I put the computer away and take notes by hand? My writing sucks now, and RSI clearly will prevent me from taking notes during two whole days.

Is it worse that that? Have years of multitasking in front of a screen impaired my ability to concentrate and focus on a single thing? Have I lost the power or the will to concentrate? That, I have to admit, is a scary idea.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just poor audio output in the room (thanks, Jérôme, for making me feel less alone about this) coupled to my usual not-so-good audio input, plus, in some cases, the fact I’m not used to following English spoken by non-native speakers (particularly francophones, because I usually speak French with them)? And the fact that I’m tired?

Oh well. It’s probably a mixture of everything. I wonder if I shouldn’t have posted this on the Cheese Sandwich Blog — but it’s a little late for that.