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Matters of life and deaf


'MakingSenseOfDeafness', by Chris JohnstonMy old Nan maintained that people were kind to the blind, but not to the deaf. She said observers could see the white stick or the guide dog and register the sightless gaze, and the uncertainty with which the blind negotiate the hazardous street.

But deafness, she considered, is a hidden affliction. 'Just imagine the horror of a completely silent world,' she said with a shudder.

Degrees of hearing loss occur for various reasons, some obvious, some not. My grandfather, who served in the Australian artillery during the First World War, became cripplingly deaf: no protection was provided, and the gunners simply had to cope with the damaging noise of bombardment.

Grandfather's was an injury-related deafness, which in today's Australia affects 1.5 per cent of the population and 12 times as many men as women. When the effects of ageing add to such deafness, 8 per cent of the population between the ages of 65 and 74 is affected. Over all, 11 per cent of Australians suffer from either partial or complete deafness.

Genetics play their inexorable part. My mother wore hearing aids. Now my brother and I do. There may be a link between childbirth and deafness, so some obstetricians recommend vulnerable women bear only two children. Diseases and infections can also be responsible: middle-ear infections are notorious, and so are tumours.

Traumata sustained in accidents are another source of lasting damage, as is exposure to loud noise. My sons, thank goodness, have no experience of bombardments, but they will persist in going to nightclubs and exposing their genetically susceptible ears to hours of over-amplified music.

I live in a Greek village, but do not go to Easter services because of the blast of double-bungers, let off in order to drive the demons away. Alas, one Easter Day, I went walking, and two little boys lit double-bungers as I passed. Miraculously, my hearing loss has not deteriorated, and my ear-drums are quite intact, but I now have tinnitus, which makes me feel as if I am sitting inside a continuously humming refrigerator.


Those who suffer from creeping deafness may be slow to realise it, and to accept it, for communication is of such vital importance to work, social situations and personal relationships. I long refused to accept my own hearing loss, upbraiding myself for lack of concentration, and telling myself good hearing was a matter of willpower.

Hearing loss is a blow to self-esteem. It leads to a strong temptation to become anti-social. It becomes too much of a strain to listen: hearing loss means stress. And sufferers do not like to think about, let alone hear, jokes about the deaf. Nor do we wish people to assume we are so deaf that we cannot hear personal remarks.

The exasperated reaction of those near and dear to the sufferer can be a problem. 'She's so deaf!' expostulated my father more than once, when my mother had misheard yet again. I didn't like his tone; my own hearing had started to fail by then, and so I bristled. 'Deafness is not a moral failing, Dad,' I yelped. To be fair, he took the point.

People with normal hearing often assume that hearing aids are a replacement. They are not, despite recent advances in digital technology. The brain has to retrain itself after hearing aids are fitted, and this process takes time. Hearing aids are also situation-specific, so that, for example, they are not very good in crowded restaurants or at Greek wedding parties: never wear a hearing-aid when a bouzouki is playing.

Strategies are called for. The person who has hearing loss accomplishes little if he/she merely says things like: 'Sorry?' 'Come again?'

The deaf person needs to make requests: 'Would you mind talking more slowly/facing me/raising your voice a little?' It is also helpful to issue a tactful reminder. 'Remember I'm aurally challenged, won't you?'

Lip-reading is a useful skill to acquire, and formal lessons are not usually necessary. Beards and moustaches can provide difficulty for lip-readers, however.

Kind friends and relations need to be conscious of the problems involved. Even people who are only partially deaf cannot hear round corners or through walls, nor can they hear when somebody is looking in a cupboard, rattling plates or banging cutlery. Music at a dinner-party can be a nightmare, and most sufferers need a telephone with a volume control.

Nor should people with normal hearing believe that not hearing is the same as mishearing; they should also understand that some people can be heard much better than others. In short, a general heightening of awareness is needed.

And part of this heightening of awareness is the knowledge of people who have not let hearing problems stand in the way of a full life and notable achievements.

Beethoven, who kept on composing despite tragic deafness, is possibly the most famous deaf person in history. Bill Clinton wears hearing-aids, as does prominent author and speaker John Julius Norwich. Sting and Sylvester Stallone both suffer from tinnitus. Musician Evelyn Glennie is deaf. Thomas Edison was. The list is very long.

Nobody wants hearing loss to happen, but far worse things can.

Hearing Awareness Week (24–30 August) aims to raise community awareness of hearing impairment and ways to protect your hearing.

Gillian Bouras Gillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.


Topic tags: National Hearing Awareness Week, Gillian Bouras, deafness, hearing aid, lip-reading



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Existing comments

This is an article that resonates with me.
My mother got Rubella when she was 3 months pregnant with me. As a consequence, I was born with a moderately severe hearing loss which meant I wore hearing aids from the age of 4.
Gillian makes a good point that hearing aids are NOT a new ear! They have their drawbacks, despite technology making tremendous leaps in recent years. It took my brain 6 months to adapt to my new (and very expensive!) digital hearing aid.
A point not made was that we are just deaf, not missing half a brain. People assume we are intellectually backward just because we don't understand something said. Lack of support in secondary/tertiary education in the 70's left many deaf unable/unwilling to venture in further education. I was certainly too exhausted after Year 12 to do any more.
There are many highly intelligent deaf people in the workforce who make a significant contribution to society.
Thank you Gillian for sharing your story.

Mary Crawford | 25 August 2008  

I certainly like Gillian's writings,no matter what the subject.Thank you Gillian.

russell walsh | 25 August 2008  

Spot on, Gillian. May I make two comments.

First, mishearing can at times be a worse affliction than not hearing. Both are essentialy due to nerve degeneration - volume problems because the receptors in the ear itself are damaged, comprehension loss because the nerve connections ear to brain are defective.

Mishearing is a double-edged problem. If I don't hear someone, I can always ask them to repeat. Just as I can if I 'hear' someone but don't understand. But believe me the real problems occur when I hear someone and think I understand! That really is, and has been many times, a recipe for disaster.

Then second, I am not sure about you but I really wouldn't be able to keep a straight face if I tried to tell someone I am 'aurally challenged'. I'm just hard of hearing - and not afraid to say so.

John R. Sabine | 25 August 2008  

As a hearing impaired adult I read this article with interest, and could relate to all of it. However I have one comment to make in relation to the digital technology. Unfortunately for me the use of digital hearing aids has not resulted in better hearing, rather the reverse. The quality of the sound reproduced is not as good as with analogue aids, and after being fitted with digital aids a number of years ago, I found myself unable to understand people for the first time in years. A return to analogue aids was the answer. However, analogue aids are no longer being made and I dread the day when my existing aids break down and I have no option but to use digital. While digital technology is wonderful it is not necessarily the answer to all problems.

Christine Locke | 25 August 2008  

A propos Gillian Bouras' piece about deaaafness, could I suggest that you look at the Ockham's Razor page on the ABC Radio National website. Yesterday's talk, by a 19-year-old UNSW student was very fine.

John Carmody | 25 August 2008  

Helen Keller, also a famous person, who was both blind and deaf responded to a question about which was the worse condition with the comment that "blindness cuts you off from things, deafness cuts you off from people."

She herself acquired her blindness and deafness after some months of neither. It is hard to understand what a short amount of time, where one can hear and see, can make to the development of language. When a child is born with a significant hearing loss, and neither parent has such a loss, the difficulty of learning the spoken language of the local community is very great indeed. Imagine firstly the reaction of parents to what they probably did not expect and secondly the difficulty at school age of teaching subjects in a language which one is trying to teach at the same time.

One reason early intervention programs have been established is to help parents and siblings discover what such early hearing loss can mean and give parents the opportunity and support to discover the way they wish to proceed to give their children the utmost possibility of achieving the potential of these children.

I am very glad to have this opportunity to say something of this silent "handicap" as I was involved in education of hearing impaired children and the support of their families for 30 years.

Sr Joan Winter OP | 25 August 2008  

Thank you to Gillian for sharing your story, with which i resonated. I have also enjoyed your other articles.
Thank you also to John for alerting us to the transcript of the interview with Sarajane Thonpson which I have skimmed through and hope to read more carefully at a later stage.

Maryrose Dennehy | 25 August 2008  

My deafness I feel is attributable to medication I was prescribed when I was in my early 40s. This was Indocid which was meant to help with Arthritis. Some 14 years later I became concious of tinnitus and from then my hearing was also affected. Later I discovered that one of the side effects of the medication could be tinnitus.

Monica Szalla | 26 August 2008  

Thank you Gillian for your wonderful article and also to John for the link to the transcript of the interview with the 19 year old uni student.

I myself am hard of hearing and so is my 15 year old daughter. My bright lovely daughter has recently started talking to me about subject and career choices and there has been much discussion (on her part) about what she may not be able to do because of her hearing. These two articles show my lovely daughter that being hard of hearing is not a hindrance to a full and successful life.

I am currently completing my Masters and am happy in my career but it is the young role models like Sarahjane and the successful writers like Gillian who my daughter will better identify with and get inspiration from. Thank you again, and God Bless.

Esperanza Torres | 24 September 2008  

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