The stigma of hearing loss is forcing up to four million people to refuse help and live in a muffled world. Star women’s editor Jo Davison tells why she is no longer one of them.
You love your latest designer accessory; I love mine. It’s custom-made, comes in nude - fashion’s colour of the moment - and best of all, it was a bargain £200. Had I not been in the know, it could have cost me £1,000.
You’re imagining, with a pang of jealousy, some butter-soft leather tote, draped luxuriously over my shoulder, I’ll bet. Something by Mulberry or Gucci, maybe
But the must-have I can’t live without is so tiny, so discreet, you’d never know I was wearing it. And that’s the whole point. It’s a hearing aid.
Yes, you heard me right. I bet you’re not jealous now, are you?
I never thought I’d publicly admit to it. But this is Deaf Awareness Week, time to face up to my “disability” and do my bit to chip away at the stigma that prevents so many people from doing something about their hearing problem.
CLICK ON THE LINK TO THE RIGHT TO TAKE THE RIND’S SIMPLE, FREE HEARING TEST
About two million people in Britain wear hearing aids; experts believe another four million need to. But they prefer to stay in their muffled worlds. Like I did.
It took me years to admit I’d got a problem and from my first hearing test in 2007, more than three years for me to actually start wearing a hearing aid. Ridiculous.
These days a woman can admit to having fake breasts and enhanced lips without a qualm. She happily corrects her failing eyesight with bi-focal contact lenses and has her face jabbed with Botox.
But admitting she needs a bit of artificial assistance in the hearing department is like announcing she’s fit for either nursing home or knackers’ yard.
“People often cannot accept they have a hearing problem at all because the loss is slow and gradual; they learn coping strategies,” say Jackie Gill, senior audiologist at the Hallamshire Hospital’s Hearing Services department, where I was kitted out.
“Others know they have a problem, but the huge stigma around hearing aids puts them off getting help. They don’t want to admit they might need one because they see it as accepting a visible sign of ageing. Many are elderly, but a high number are younger people.”
They are all doing what I did. I tried to guess what people were saying; I’d scan faces for clues.
When you’ve said; “Sorry, what did you say?” for the umpteenth time, you affect an ambiguous little laugh by way of a reply.
People know you’re covering up, but they don’t think you’re deaf. They think you’re too slow-witted to come up with a clever answer. I wonder now why daft seemed infinitely preferable.
Ever heard of Bristol Palace? I thought I had when I asked a colleague which club Sheffield United’s Keith Curle had gone to. So that’s what I wrote. In this paper.
Over the years there have been many such moments of inadvertent malapropism. But my hearing wasn’t to blame. People mumbled. Men especially.
It was only when I met the one I was to marry that I started to doubt my own ears. He came into my single life and winced at the volume of my telly. How could it be too loud, I told him; I still couldn’t hear it properly.
He got tired of having to repeat most things and having to yank me out of the path of bicycles, even cars, coming at me from behind.
So I went to the doctor’s and asked her to syringe my ears. Wax, or maybe some long-lost peanut, was surely to blame. But the doctor found neither - and referred me to the audiology department at the Hallamshire.
I had my first audiogram in 2007. Earphones were clamped on; I had to press a little buzzer every time I heard a note. There weren’t that many; I sat patiently through the silences.
But afterwards, I was shown a graph on a computer screen. There had been no silences. Here was the proof of my dodgy hearing. The neuro pathways that transmitted sound to my brain had worn thin; I have a problem detecting certain frequencies.
So what did I do? Obviously, I turned down a succession of appointments for a hearing aid fitting. For over a year I couldn’t bring myself to accept the truth. When I reluctantly went back, to my mortification they gave me a behind-the-ear contraption.
Admittedly it was small and light, but I loathed it at first sight, that symbol of my internal decay. Slap on as many skin serums as you like; pound the treadmill; become a WeightWatchers gold member. But you can do nothing about your ears.
I felt so embarrassed, I told hardly anyone. Those I did tell were so amazed, you’d think I’d announced I’d been given a false leg.
I refused to wear it at work and tried to get used to it a couple of hours a night at home. But it duplicated every sound; I couldn’t stand the constant echo. At my next appointment three months later, I handed back the device I’d barely used.
Better back with them than languish in a drawer, as a huge percentage of aids are known to be doing, right this moment.
I refused to go back for another 11 months; I was fine. I could manage. That’s what I decided to tell them when I finally went to an appointment in February 2010.
But the audiologist did another test, which showed a slight deterioration in my hearing - and showed me a dinky, in-ear device. I knew it was stupid and vain to refuse.
I was so nervous, when I went back to be fitted I took my husband for moral support. My little pink aid had been custom-made to the inner contours of my ear and programmed to the frequencies I needed. I popped it in.
As we walked out of the Hallamshire, every footstep sounded like something out of Jack and the Beanstalk. I heard my husband’s mobile, ringing inside his jacket pocket. I’d gone from cloth-eared to sonic-eared. He started calling me Bat Girl.
Even though the aid was almost invisible. I worried people would know and either laugh at me, or write me off as a deaf old biddy, so I wore it on and off at first.
But I began to realise what I couldn’t hear naturally. I’d be struggling to catch the dialogue on telly, stop myself from reaching for the remote and stick my hearing aid in instead. Just to see - well, hear. There was such a marked difference, I started wearing it almost constantly.
I leave it out if I’m outdoors - wind is SO loud. And in a bar or busy restaurant the noise is often overwhelming, so I surreptitiously move my hand to my ear, whip out my mini amp and sneak it into my handbag. Hopefully those who still don’t know - there are many - think I’m twiddling with an earring.
But what really convinced me my invisible aid is actually my friend was when I thought I’d lost it the other week. It wasn’t in its box. It wasn‘t in any corner of my bag. I searched in a panic; what was I going to do without it?
Finally, I found my little pink gem, my ear to the world, whistling quietly in a coat pocket.
I realised how dumb I’d been to think I’d be better off without it.