Working With Hearing Loss

By Yishane Lee

Hearing Helath magazine staff writer Kathi Mestayer has written two articles about issues of workplace noise—how to take steps to take to protect your hearing if your workplace is noisy, and how to cope at work if you have a hearing loss. In response, we received an email from Eric Schwartz, of Atlanta. He has a hearing loss and, with help of a fellow colleague who also has a hearing loss, contributed a question-and-answer column to his consulting firm’s in-house newsletter.

It is interesting to read as it tackles the issue of hearing loss at the workplace from two different perspectives. “Jackie Fitzgerald and I met at an internal North Highland training session and bonded instantly when we both realized we were wearing hearing aids,” says Schwartz. “We have very different perspectives because of our respective genders and the fact that I was born with my hearing loss and Jackie’s hearing loss came as an adult, due to otosclerosis, a disease of the bones of the inner ear.”

Here are excerpts from the article.

What is your biggest challenge?

Jackie: With the slow onset of my hearing loss, my biggest challenge has been truly grasping the extent of how much I really have lost over the years. Recently the need to “fill in” what I missed in a conversation has become more necessary. At times this filling in has led to misunderstandings or an inadvertent change in topic. One example is when I have missed one simple word like “not”—which has happened on more than one occasion with my husband, and as you can imagine has caused some heated conversation before we realize I missed that simple little word. So for me, the challenge is also realizing I need to make adjustments, including asking someone to repeat themselves, which can be difficult to do.

Eric: My challenge is just trying to appear “normal” in a world in which spoken communication is very important. I think people sometimes assume I am stupid or am choosing to ignore them, and they are judging me based on that rather than recognizing that I have a hearing loss. The hardest situations for me include whispering, interpreting foreign accents, trying to hear in a lot of background noise, watching television with no subtitles, and listening to pitched voices that are outside of my hearing range. Hearing aids help quite a bit, but there are times when I can’t wear them such as while doing sports, taking a shower, etc. People don’t always know when I don’t have them in, although I try and wear them whenever I am awake. Just dealing with the embarrassment of not hearing and being afraid to ask people to repeat what they said is something I struggle with as well. I do have to admit that I’m somewhat self-conscious about the hearing aids, particularly when a small child points to them and asks their parents, “What does that man have in his ear?”  

It’s more of a challenge in my personal life than my professional life because the context is so much more straightforward at work. I’ve grown very accustomed to filling in the blanks and making educated guesses at what people are saying, to the extent that I don’t even realize I’m doing it. My wife hates it when I guess wrong—she’d much rather I clarify then guess, but it’s hard because I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I do agree that a sense of humor can be very helpful in coping with this, and any, situation.

What have you learned?

Jackie: I have learned that due to my loss I have become a bit paranoid. My loss is always “there” and it is something I worry about in the back of my mind. Do I have batteries for my aids on hand? Will my hearing aids “go out” during an important meeting? How will I effectively facilitate the next breakout session in this noisy room? Will I be able to hear the conversation at the end of a table? I have learned that one of the keys to limiting the problems is to plan ahead, always have batteries on hand, sit close to the speakers, and to find quieter locations for conversation. Also for the most part people are intrigued and truly interested in the loss when I share it with them, so when appropriate, I always make sure others are aware of my loss to help minimize any misunderstandings. But most importantly, I have learned the value of a sense of humor. For those who know me, they know I love to laugh, so using this trait has become invaluable when misunderstandings have occurred.

Eric: Most people are compassionate and want to help and I need to do a better job of explaining my hearing loss to people. In addition, I have learned that I really have to concentrate and pay much more attention to what people aren’t saying, such as through body language. Lastly, I have an opportunity to teach people about this and help people who experience the onset of a hearing loss later in life.

What are you grateful for?

Jackie: I’m most grateful for two things: technology and a spouse who is very patient. The new technology around hearing is incredible, and without it I couldn’t do the work I love—listening and helping clients. But even with all the wonders of technology, I still miss things and when I think about all the times my husband has answered the question, “What did they say?” during a movie, without getting annoyed, I am truly amazed. When we met I didn’t have a loss and he has really been a wonderful supporter. Recently he has begun to lose some hearing and I caught myself getting frustrated with him—which really brought to light just how wonderful he has been over the past 20 years.

Eric: Hearing aid technology is amazing. It’s more expensive than I’d like and it’s not always covered by insurance, but even that is changing. I’m also grateful for my other senses and the hearing that I do have. Being hearing impaired is a small handicap compared with being completely deaf. I’m grateful that I have been able to compensate and adjust and it hasn’t had an overly negative impact on my life. It also seems as if my hearing loss has heightened my other senses and abilities in terms of my sense of smell and sight and my ability to observe and remember.

What would be a key takeaway for colleagues?

Jackie: I am generally filling in close to 20 percent of a conversation based on context and body language. Over the course of the day that can be exhausting. So if I completely change topics or appear to go in a different direction, please don’t be afraid to make sure I heard what was intended, versus what I appear to have understood. There is a big difference—I can only understand if I heard it correctly! Also, during a presentation, for the 10 percent of the population with a hearing loss, listening while also trying to read information is extremely challenging. I personally have to completely concentrate to hear a presenter, so presenting slides quickly and which are not aligned to what the speaker is saying can be very frustrating. Most importantly if you think you might have a hearing loss, take it seriously. You don’t know what you are missing—which can be a lot.

Eric: Please be patient and do your best to make sure I can see your lips when we are talking. If I don’t appear to understand you, please assume I didn’t hear you or fully understand you—I am probably not ignoring you. Also, if you see me outside the office running a 5K or 10K race, I might not have my hearing aids in, and sometimes first thing in the morning if I think I’m at the office before anyone else is there, I might not have them in either. I’ll put them in pretty quickly if it seems as if someone wants to engage in a conversation with me, but if I’m talking to someone one on one and we’re near each other, I can usually function pretty well.

Are there ways you consider being hearing impaired an advantage?

Jackie: Absolutely! I like to call my loss a true “superpower.” Sleeping is very peaceful, and when riding in airplanes I don’t need to invest in gadgets to quiet the loud talkers and crying babies. I love music and when I go to concerts I can take out my aids so I never have to admit the music is “too loud.” And a few years ago my mother and I laughed when she commented that no wonder I was so patient when my boys invited so many friends to our house—I couldn’t hear them.

Eric: When I really need to focus and get something done, I can take out my hearing aids and really concentrate on the task at hand. I think it’s easier to check out and tune in to my thoughts. As Jackie said, it’s easier to tune out things in public places. I also sleep more soundly than most people I know. Sometimes in a noisy place I can actually do better than normal hearing people because of my ability to read lips. The other interesting thing is technology. With my newest hearing aids I have a Bluetooth adapter that turns my hearing aids into receivers for my cell phone and landline and MP3 player!  This is very cool.

What’s something surprising you’ve found about your hearing loss?

Jackie: How many people think it is funny to say “what?” when I explain that I have a hearing loss. It surprises me how everyone thinks they are the first to think of that joke. But seriously, when I started preparing for this article I reflected back on the 20 or so years since I was diagnosed and realized how much I didn’t know about my loss. Back then, there wasn’t WebMD or Google, so I just didn’t do much research. I realized how little I understood about something that was such a key part of my life. What I learned in my recent research is that one in 10 Americans have hearing loss, but only a fifth of the population use hearing aids. I found this amazing since close to 90 to 95 percent of those people could benefit from a hearing aid solution. To me any stigma that may be encountered due to another person’s ignorance will never compare to the quality of life that I would miss without my aids.

Eric: My biggest surprise is how much I crave quiet. I find it very annoying and distracting when the TV or radio is on in the background, especially when it’s loud. So, even though I have a hearing loss, I’m sensitive to loud noises (especially screaming babies at restaurants and on airplanes now that my kids are past that stage) and really don’t like loud music at all. The other thing, which really isn’t a surprise, is that I’m horrible at multitasking and get distracted by simply being able to hear. When I first got my hearing aids, it was fascinating to hear certain sounds, like the sound liquid makes when you pour it in a cup or birds chirping in my backyard. I never heard those things before I got hearing aids.

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