The National Federation of the Blind
of Connecticut
What Did You Say? What's That? Say It Again?
By Agnes Allen

Now I ask you to look up at the moon and the stars. How shining and bright they are! I ask you to listen to a Beethoven symphony. How majestic and grand it sounds. Taste a sweet, juicy orange. How succulent! Come smell a lovely, blossoming rose. How fragrant! Pet a soft furry kitten. How silken!

Can you imagine for a moment what it is like to be bereft of any of the five remarkable senses? In the ensuing essay I would like to share with you some of the ways in which I personally have experienced the loss of two of the sentient gifts bestowed upon mankind: total vision loss and partial (but moderately severe) hearing loss.

Most people take sight and hearing for granted, to be without one or both is unthinkable. I have been totally blind since early childhood and have lived with a major hearing deficiency for much of my adult life. Since I lost my sight early on, adjustment to my plight was a relatively simple matter. Training and education made it possible to live normally and actively in my world. But developing a hearing impairment along with blindness in my maturity was indeed devastating. I was neither psychologically or emotionally ready to cope with this double whammy. Nor could I have foretold being adaptable to it in the future. I could not make eye contact with someone, nor would I be comfortable in communicating freely with others. Yes, wearing hearing aids, to a degree, enhances hearing. But that is just watt they are: hearing 'aids'. I find them to be of very little help in certain situations.

If a person speaking to me turns his head even slightly, not facing me directly, the words expressed become unintelligible. Nor do I understand what the person sitting across the table is saying if any other noise is occurring simultaneously. This may take place, for example, in a restaurant where talking and clattering music are at fault.

Prior to the change in my lifestyle engendered by the hearing loss, I was a successful student, a productive employee, and a dedicated mother of three girls. But with the onset of hearing loss, I was compelled to meet new challenges. One of the most important of these was to search for employment in which sight or hearing was not absolutely crucial. The skill of Braille literacy had become second nature, and a professional Braille proofreader suggested that I try to find employment as a proofreader for a non-profit agency for the blind in Philadelphia. I followed up on my friend's suggestion and arranged an interview with the head of the department. After serving in the field of Braille proofreading I found employment as a tutor of two blind students being educated in the Vineland, NJ public school system.

From time to time I am invited to speak to various groups about blindness and Braille. Often audiences wish to follow up with questions or comments, and I am struck by the nagging fear of being unable to hear or understand. To somewhat alleviate this situation I like to ask someone in the front row to repeat what was said when I was not able to hear clearly.

At a social gathering or meeting, when a joke or funny remark is being passed along, I can't join in the ensuing laughter; I sit in silence and let the whole episode pass me by.
There are occasions on the telephone when words or sentences are utterly incomprehensible and frustration begins to build for both me and the person at the other end. When I am listening for an important number, I can come up with a wrong number because a nine and a five, for instance, contain the 'I' vowel and can be confused. Vowels are not always clear.

It would be less stressful, I am certain, to remain at home and avoid the foregoing situations, but then how could I, as a recluse, remain happy? I would become less of a person for doing so. It is so easy to isolate oneself and begin to question "why me, Lord?" and be tempted to feel inferior to thus around me who can see and hear. At such times I must take stock of my own talents and capabilities, focusing on what I can do, not what I can't.

A sense of humor lightens the pain of most hardships. It softens the vicissitudes imposed by the condition. This is no less true of deaf blindness. For example, Bill, a hearing impaired man said to his friend, "Joe, I just received a new hearing aid and it is simply wonderful! " To which assertion Joe replies, "Oh, yeah, what kind is it?" To which Bill responds, "Two-thirty." Then there is John, who said to his wife, "Suzie, go do the bills." To which Suzie retorts, "Did you say go take a pill?"

In the foregoing witticism, unintelligible speech is the culprit. Hearing technology seems to be keeping moderate pace with general technology. I have benefited exceedingly from digital hearing aids, comparatively speaking. Without them the hearing world shuts down. My digitals contain a built-in switch which, when activated, allows my hearing to adjust to different environments. When the switch is on program 1, it sets the tone for normal conversation. When programmed on 2, it reduces background noise. This mechanism reigns on the targeted voice.

When I am riding in a car or bus, for instance, my digitals can be set to diminish the roaring sound of outside traffic, making it easier to converse with the driver.
Once I attended a wedding reception at which the surroundings were so fraught with noise, that I could scarcely hear what was being said by the woman sitting next to me. I could hardly await the return to my peace and quiet at home.

If an interesting topic is introduced at a meeting or social gathering, it is difficult to follow the discussion to which I would so like to contribute. In such a situation, I feel isolated and excluded. If I ask a question or make a comment, I do not know whether what I say has any relevance. My tendency is to remain quiet in order to stave off embarrassment.

The acoustics of a room can affect the quality of hearing. An entire lecture or discourse can be lost or muffled. A sighted and hearing person may be able to salvage some of the information by watching the speaker's gestures and other visual clues. The pastor of my church has kindly installed a transmitting and receiving system especially designed to improve the auditory quality of the mass or other services. When the system is working efficiently I can hear the homily and other parts of the service.

When one learns that someone has a hearing difficulty, the tendency of the person talking is to raise the voice when all that is needed may be just a clear, modulated voice. Loudness can distort the sound. High frequencies in some women's high pitched voices can play havoc with communication.

Although the human ear has never been replicated, the miracles of technology are phenomenal. Hearing technology has really made great strides over the past decades. Gone are the days of old-fashioned hearing contraptions which little improved the hearing of the effected individual. As sophisticated and revolutionary as modern hearing technology has become, it has yet to transform the original and natural hearing function of the human ear. Nor do I ever visualize it doing that. Of course, no one can predict the future, who can tell what miracles may be produced for people with hearing loss?
I look forward to a time when it will no longer be necessary for me to ask, "What's that?" Or, "Say it again?" Or, "Beg pardon?" How spectacular that day will be!


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Updated January 31, 2011