When You Realize What You Were Missing

My daughter is deaf in one ear, diagnosed at 14 months with mild/moderate loss. Got her first aid at 26 months. Took her first booth test somewhere around 3 years old. At that point, her hearing level had dropped from moderate to profound loss.

It’s hard for those of us with normal hearing to understand what profound hearing loss means. I didn’t really get an inkling until those first booth tests. I sat in the booth with my daughter, but several feet away. She wore headsets to listen to the instructor. The doctor would ask her to point to cards with pictures on them. When the doctor asked for the airplane in the good ear, my daughter pointed without hesitation.

In the bad ear…nothing. The doctor would gradually raise the volume, to the point where I, sitting a few feet away, could hear the doctor as clear as day even through the headsets, while my daughter sat unmoving, waiting for the instruction she could not hear.

That is profound hearing loss.

Still, the loss didn’t seem to impact my daughter much. She can’t localize sound, and if you talk in her bad ear she will not hear you, but those were the only major issues. She has a hearing aid for the bad ear, but has been saying for some time that it doesn’t help at all.

So we are trying out a new type of hearing aid, called a cross or crossover.  This consists of a microphone on her bad ear that pipes the sound over to the good ear, so she is hearing both sides on one ear.  Eventually, the brain learns to discern which sound comes from which ear, and it helps with sound localization, as well as hearing sound and speech from the bad side.

When we first put it on my daughter, her eyes got big, and she yelled, “Everything is so LOUD!” For the first time in her life, she was hearing the world as I do. She was stunned and delighted, excitement shining from her face. The funny thing was that every time we put the aid on, she started yelling instead of speaking normally. That seemed counter-intuitive, until I figured out that she probably thought she had to speak louder to be heard over her louder world–much like we yell over a TV up at high volume.

While excitement was her first reaction, a different feeling surfaced a few days later. “Mommy, I’m a little sad.” I asked her why. “Because I never realized how different I am.” I asked what she meant. “I never knew how much I couldn’t hear that everyone else could.”

Sometimes it’s hard when you finally realize what you’ve been missing.

So I whispered into her aided bad ear, “I love you.”

It piped over to her good ear.

And her smile shone out and her eyes lit up.

Maybe she realized that she’s not really missing the things that matter most.

A Mile in My Daughter’s Ears

Some of you are aware that my preschool daughter wears a hearing aid in one ear. We are lucky that she has one good ear, so she did not have trouble with speech acquisition and the like. In fact, she often seems to be able to hear me very well even without the hearing aid, so I have sometimes wondered just how much she really needs it.

I got a taste of her life this week.

On Saturday night I took myself to the emergency room. My ear and the area around my ear were in so much pain I was shaking. I couldn’t rest my head on anything. I just wanted the pain to stop. I could think of nothing else.

And then my eardrum burst.

Sitting in the ER waiting room, I heard a “shhooom” noise in my ear and then clear fluid started trickling out. The pain trickled out with it, and slowly it dropped to a manageable level. They gave me antibiotics for the infection and sent me home.

I am now deaf in that ear.

Hopefully, it will only be for a few weeks as the perforated drum heals, but it has given me an unexpected insight into my daughter’s world. Granted, she can hear something in her bad ear, but it’s still a pretty good approximation. I’ve learned a lot.

If I lay on the side of my good ear in bed, I cannot hear anything. This is not good, because I need to hear the baby monitor (my husband cannot hear it). So I am sleeping on the side I don’t usually sleep on, so I can keep my good ear up.

If I am on the phone, I cannot hear anything in the house. This can be a good thing, because I do not get distracted by my daughter’s constant chatter, but it usually results in her trying to climb up my leg to get my attention, so on the whole it’s a wash.

If the sound I want to focus on is on my bad side, and there is any noise at all on my good side, forget it. All I can hear is the sound on the good side. This is why positioning my daughter in school so her good ear is always toward the teacher is so important.

Localization is an issue. I know this from my daughter—she never knows where a sound is coming from. Losing your other ear is akin to losing one eye. If you cover one eye for long enough, you will lose your depth perception and have trouble judging distance. The same with losing one ear—you can’t judge accurately the distance and position of the sound. Because I am older and have more experience hearing normally, I can usually tell where the noise is coming from, but not because I can hear it—just because I know.

The weirdest phenomenon for me has been the phantom music. My bad ear can hear nothing. If you’ve ever been in a completely silent room and you just hear that low hum of nothing, that is what I hear. But the ear must also be picking up other sounds I am not consciously hearing, because I hear strange noises—a voice that isn’t there, music that isn’t playing. Last night I could have sworn I heard circus music in my house. My brain is obviously trying to make sense of random auditory input it’s getting from that bad ear. Does my daughter hear things that aren’t there? She’s too young to tell me.

Lastly, I was not aware of how much energy it takes to simply pay attention when you can’t hear well. People with 2 good ears learn so much information from passive listening—from the information overheard rather than sought out. When you can’t hear well, you need to always be seeking so you don’t get left behind. It can be exhausting.

I don’t advise puncturing an eardrum to experience what deafness is like, but having it thrust upon me has given me a new appreciation for my hearing, and a new understanding of what my daughter deals with every day. Hopefully, it will help me make the right choices to help her achieve her full potential.

How about you? Have you ever had an unexpected insight into another person’s struggle with a mental or physical challenge?

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Tapping into the Reader’s Inner Ear

Books are a print media. So it makes sense that writing should be a visual art. And in fact, we do think about how the words look on the page. We consider how much white space there is, how the varied paragraph lengths look on the page, and try hard to eliminate those one-word “orphan” lines (they drive me crazy).

Some take it deeper than that, considering how the words themselves look. Short sentences and short words in an action scene promote tension, for example. But even more than that, the particular letters that make up a word can convey a visual sense of the word. Consider “faint” and “swoon.” They mean pretty much the same thing, but just looking at them gives a different sense of the action. The upright, skinny letters in faint give it a quick, hard look. The rounded, wide letters of swoon stretch out the action.

Clearly, however, writing is not considered a visual art. We don’t say to one another, “That sentence doesn’t look right.” We say it doesn’t sound right. And not just about dialogue, although that is especially important. There’s a reason we are told to read our novel aloud when editing: We need to know how it SOUNDS.

Writing is an aural art. We describe rhythm and pace, the cadence of the sentences. We talk about alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia. We say words resonate, or a work speaks to us. We discuss a writer’s voice and tone. In short, we rely on the reader’s inner ear.

Which makes me wonder what the reading experience is like for people who are deaf.

I have, for a variety of reasons, become interested in American Sign Language (ASL). Because of that, I took an ASL course. Our teacher was deaf. She explained to us that she spoke ASL, and although she read in English, English was her second language. I had never thought about that before.

So now I wonder how people who have been deaf from birth or who have no memory of spoken language experience reading. The cadence of the sentences is missing for them. The suggestive sound of the words does not exist. Whereas they have one sign that can mean various things based on context, we have many words that all mean the same thing. And although we writers agonize over getting the dialogue to sound natural, it will never read as natural for ASL speakers, because ASL has a very different grammatical structure than English does.

Is reading dull for them? Do they feel that they are missing one level of the meaning? I know when people write about smells or taste, I (who have no sense of smell) often feel disconnected from the passage or the meaning they are trying to convey. But a writer’s reliance on the inner ear (his own and the reader’s) is more than just a stray passage here and there—it goes to the core of writing. It is in every word.

My writing is usually devoid of any reference to smell or taste, as they are not factors in the way I experience everyday life. Similarly, a deaf person’s perception of the world is fundamentally different that someone who can hear. I wonder, then, if a deaf person’s style of writing would be intrinsically different than a hearing person’s?

Does anyone know of any fiction writers who are deaf?

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