Dr. Ross on Hearing Loss
Reflections of a Hard of Hearing Audiologist
by Mark Ross, Ph.D.
When I entered the Audiology profession forty years ago, I knew of only one other audiologist that had a hearing loss that predated his entry into the field. The field itself was very young at that time, and most audiologists were in their mid to late 20's or early 30's. Now as the profession matures and its members get older, it is not at all unusual to see audiologists wearing hearing aids. But forty years ago, the sight of an audiologist wearing a body-worn hearing aid - the only type available - was not only unusual, but also practically unheard of. I think I must have been the only audiologist most of my colleagues knew who wore a hearing aid; certainly that was true for all of my students and patients. Ironically, only as I look back now can I fully appreciate how unique my situation was.
As it happens, I didn't originally intend to be an audiologist. My hearing loss was detected while I was in the service, and in late 1951 I was transferred to the Army Aural Rehabilitation program at Walter Reed Hospital. I hadn't been to college yet, and it was only after I finished my service obligation that I decided to continue my education (at the advanced age of 28 I might add!). My intention was to learn enough about Audiology to take a part-time job selling hearing aids. Before I could enroll in Audiology courses, however, I first had to take many prerequisite courses. This got me into the professional end of the field, which was undoubtedly a good thing. As I recall, I only sold one hearing aid in the one year that I stayed at that job. Clearly, I would have starved if I tried to make a living selling hearing aids! So as I continued in school, one degree led to another and when I received my doctorate in 1962, my professional identity as an audiologist was pretty well established.
All hard of hearing people have their own histories to relate and it would be simplistic to hold out my experiences, or anyone else's, as some kind of template or norm. We are all different. I personally was fortunate to be transferred to the Army Aural Rehabilitation program several weeks after my hearing loss was detected. I spent two months there, with perhaps forty or fifty other hearing-impaired servicemen. In that environment, our hearing loss was the common denominator. As we were fitted with hearing aids, we would joke about being "on or off the air". During speechreading classes, we would boast about our prowess in reading the lips of the young ladies at dances and other social functions; evidently, we thought that skill compensated us somewhat for our hearing loss. In a sense, our shared experiences and informal interactions comprised a kind of emotional support group, at a time when we needed it most. The program helped us accept the reality of our hearing loss and left us feeling more optimistic about our futures lives than we would have been otherwise.
In retrospect, of all the benefits accruing from that experience this was probably the greatest. I never had to go through the usual conflicts and denials that are so common when a hearing loss gradually develops in an adult. Being in the military service when my hearing loss was detected, I was simply ordered to participate in the Aural Rehabilitation program and ordered to wear hearing aids. The options of procrastination and denial were not available. I had no choice but to publicly acknowledge my hearing loss, since this had already done for me by the Army. I realize that this model cannot be adopted by our larger societies, but we can still learn something from it. For example, we might at least consider the merits of being somewhat more forceful and assertive in helping hard of hearing people come to terms with their hearing loss - and helping them do something about it. We do frequently succeed in helping people who have been dragged kicking and screaming into our clinics by their spouses or adult children!
I think it was my personal acceptance of my hearing loss that paved the way for my being accepted professionally. (I'm not saying that I liked it, only that I accepted it.) If there is one thing I've learned over the years in working with both deaf and hard of hearing people, both adults and children, it is that self-acceptance is the essential prerequisite for society's acceptance. I never felt that the hearing loss would or should present an insurmountable professional obstacle, and I think I must have communicated my assurance and self-confidence to my colleagues over the years. Yes, there were times when my personal hearing loss might have influenced my professional future, but I can recall only two or three such instances, and these took place at the onset of my career.
I think it necessary to make a distinction between my experiences as a professional and as a hard of hearing person (or, as the preferred terminology would have it, a person with a hearing loss). Once established as a professional, my hearing loss, rather than being a handicap, offered me certain credibility, a credibility I might add I neither sought nor welcomed. As an Audiology professor, I did not want my students to feel that they had to have a hearing loss in order to gain credibility with their patients or with the parents of hearing-impaired children. I still feel that way. It should not be necessary for one to have some impairment in order to feel empathy or to deal sensitively with a person having that same condition. But still, the reality, which I could not honestly deny, is that at least some of my patients and some of the parents I worked with did feel that I was a more plausible professional because of my own hearing loss. And in all candor, if I could be a more effective with someone by highlighting my own hearing loss, if by using my own experiences I could help them more, then I never hesitated to do it.
I'm also pleased by the fact that I've served as a role model for a number of young hard of hearing students who wanted to become Audiologists. Some of these young people contacted me directly and asked me to intercede on their behalf with a training program; in other cases, it was the faculty from training programs who contacted me and asked what they could reasonably expect from a hard of hearing student. I always found it rather odd, that a profession dedicated to reducing the consequences of a hearing loss, should place obstacles in the path of those it was dedicated to helping. Happily, the reluctance to accept hard of hearing students is diminishing. As a matter of fact, at a recent SHHH convention, I met two hard of hearing audiologists whom I had encouraged to pursue studies in Audiology. Both of these young women are now working as manufacturer's representatives, enjoying their work and excelling in it.
My experience as a professional, however, does not necessarily apply to my personal life; the fact that I have a severe-to-profound hearing loss has had a major impact on my life. There are many occasions when the hearing loss interferes with my ability to participate fully in a social or cultural event. Like most other hard of hearing people, I have a great deal of difficulty understanding speech in a noisy restaurant or cocktail party. I have avoided going to various social activities or lectures because I knew that I would wind up feeling frustrated and angry about not being able to fully comprehend the verbal messages. Since the passage of the Americans with Disability Act, this problem is being eased somewhat, particularly as it pertains to listening situations in large areas, such as in auditoriums, theatres, etc. But still, no matter what alleviating steps are taken, and with the application of current technology we can do quite a bit, there is no way to fully compensate for a hearing loss. It is not possible, I believe, to eliminate a significant portion of normal auditory sensory capabilities and remain completely unaffected in all aspects of one's life. The hearing loss will be "heard" from, at some times and in some places.
Nobody I know chooses to have a hearing loss. If we could wave a magic wand and completely restore our hearing, the demand for such wands would be overwhelming! We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to minimize the impact of the hearing loss on our lives; unlike some Deaf people, we do not regard the hearing loss as a part of our self-definition. Nobody hired me because I was a hard of hearing audiologist, but rather because I was a competent professional. As it happens my hearing loss and my profession were complementary to some extent, but this is not true of other hard of hearing people who practice different professions. For them, the hearing loss may be an obstacle to the full realization of their personal and professional goals. But - and this has been the essence of my professional philosophy - for the majority of hard of hearing people the hearing loss need not be an insurmountable obstacle. In making this point, I don't want to minimize or trivialize the consequences of a hearing loss. Sometimes, as I indicated earlier, some doors may be closed but not all doors and not nearly as many as there were years ago.
We now have technical possibilities with hearing aids and other hearing assistance technologies that we could not even conceive of years ago. And I have no doubt that more will be developed in our lifetimes. More and more we're going to see devices and techniques which can minimize the communication consequences of a hearing loss. However the key that opens the widest door to effective rehabilitation is not technological developments but one's personal attitude. The first and most crucial step is simple acknowledgment; almost nothing can be done for or on behalf of hard of hearing people who do not accept the reality of their own condition. Once the loss is accepted, it is possible to go on from there, to not only help oneself but to act as a role model and example for others who are still in the denial stage. The goal we seek is not to join some sub-culture comprised of hard of hearing people, but to participate as fully as possible in the mainstream of our society.