Me and my hearing loss
I was born with normal hearing, so learned to talk just like other young children, but I have a genetic defect which has meant that together with other symptoms I have been gradually losing my hearing since then. I had no idea that I was different to others, until when I met my husband at age 29 and he asked me if I realised that I didn’t hear him when he stood behind me. So, rather than having a sudden hearing loss, I had a sudden identity change - from a normal hearing person to someone who was hard of hearing

What that meant
What a revelation that was. I was amazed and confused and as I shared the news with others learned that I had been perceived as ‘moody’ or rude, because I had ignored friends who saw me in the street and called or spoke to me. I now knew why other young people knew the words to pop songs and I didn’t - they could hear them on the radio!

Shaping the relationships in my life
I count myself as very fortunate. The gradual decline in my hearing over many years has meant that I have developed coping strategies. I learned to lipread naturally, because I had to, in order to be able to form and maintain relationships and I chose close friends who spoke clearly. This was not a conscious choice, but rather the outcome of finding that trying to converse with people who mumbled or talked behind their hands or hair was tiring and stressful for me. As a result I am married to a wonderful man who talks clearly and is interested in understanding what I can hear and how he can be helpful. How much more fortunate I am than a friend who has lost her hearing in later life and whose relationship is suffering because she is married to a man who mumbles. It didn’t matter before, but now it is so frustrating for her.

Choosing work that is appropriate
I have enjoyed working with people from my school days, when I helped at a day centre for people with disabilities. Then after university, I was involved in establishing a self help network and found myself working with counsellors, and also having a natural ability for counselling. People started to ask if they could see me on a one-to-one basis. As much as my heart sung at the notion of doing that, I continued to develop the self-help network, but deferred training as a counsellor for 10 years, because I thought people coming to be ‘heard’ would feel let down by me. Eventually I decided to enrol for counselling training just to learn more about myself. You’ve probably guessed that by the end of the first year I was seeing clients and on my way to becoming a counsellor. My hearing loss was both a gift and a burden. It had forced me to develop a sophisticated understanding of body language – an awareness of the ‘music behind the words, nuances conveyed in subtle ways. However, there were difficulties to overcome. Clients found my rather fixed gaze while lipreading too intense, so I learned how to move my eyes, while still being able to focus on lips and now clients tell me that my hearing loss doesn’t interfere with their experience in the counselling relationship. Groupwork continues to be challenging for me, but is possible as long as I have a good relationship with a co-facilitator.

Tell or don’t tell
Deciding who needs to know and when to tell is contextual, and defining the correct timing and wording is challenging. Sometimes I get it right and at other times I don’t. It is now more than 20 years since I discovered that I had hearing loss, but only gradually have I come to terms with it and become more confident about telling people. While being sensitive to the context of a new relationship, I do now find or create an opportunity to give people the facts about my hearing loss, how I cope and what they can do (or not) to be helpful. A fear of stigma attached to being ‘hard of hearing’ and worry about other people’s opinions used to hold me back. Now I consider it a useful test. If I am judged as lacking because of my hearing loss then that is not a healthy relationship for me to maintain. The responsibility is shared. I need to tell and others need to listen. Sometimes though even those most willing do forget and then I need to be patient and gently remind them.

Hard of hearing differs from profound hearing loss
‘Hard of hearing’ can be more difficult for people to understand than ‘deaf’. If someone is profoundly deaf then they can’t hear much at all and people need to be told that. However, when someone is hard of hearing, they can hear some things but not others. That is difficult for hearing people to understand, particularly if the person with hearing loss considers they can manage well enough not to have to disclose it. So, it can look as if they are choosing what they hear, or don’t hear – people call it ‘selective hearing’. I am a good example of this. In addition to having hearing loss and as an additional consequence of my genetic defect, I have an allergy to the materials used to make hearing aid moulds etc. I would love to wear my hearing aids all the time, but after a number of hours my ears become swollen, sore and sometimes weeping, so I have to manage without my hearing aids whenever I can. That means I have two modes. I am quite deaf without my hearing aids, but hear well enough with them – but how can people know which mode I am operating in? That is especially difficult now that hearing aids are so inconspicuous.

Using technology and other support
I’ve seen such wonderful advances in technology over the years. I now have a pair of power hearing aids and a streamer (neck loop remote control), which acts as a ‘hands free’ streaming sound from my phone, mobile and computer to my hearing aids, and a volume control too. I also use loop systems wherever available (which is not often enough, but hopefully their availability will gradually increase), lip reading classes to improve my understanding of lip shapes, and Skype. Now I can lipread on video calls and am able to offer Skype counselling.

Still battling with the challenges
As anyone with hearing loss will know, the issues don’t go away. My hearing continues to decline, but I have used my years of experience of hearing loss constructively and acquired skills to manage my life such that I still live to my full potential. What is important is that I accept myself with my hearing loss – indeed I am perhaps a more sensitive and deeply empathic person at times because of it.

I am grateful that I live in an age where technology is constantly evolving. Each year seems to bring improved options for people with hearing loss and I continue to have a positive attitude towards exploring these options as they become available – and affordable. I hope the rest of society, especially service providers, will do likewise. The challenges aren’t always easy but, as I know only too well from my work as a counsellor, life exposes us to all sorts of difficult and uncomfortable experiences. What is important is to appreciate and focus on our strengths and the gifts life brings, while finding ways to manage difficulties as well we can. You can’t do it alone, but you alone can do it - the support of others, whether friends, families or professionals, can help us do this.