It was around this time, three years ago that I began to notice things were not quite right. I had begun my PhD a month before and initially I put the headaches, frustration, and isolation down to that – staring at computer screens a little too long, readjusting to reading overly complicated academic articles, and working for long hours on my own at home. I certainly did not expect that within a year, I would be told that I was losing my hearing. And that within another year, I would have lost such a significant amount that I would need hearing aids.
Cutting a very long story short, my most recent annual appointment with audiology has shown that, thankfully, my hearing loss has stopped – or at least slowed considerably – and so while they still aren’t certain why it occurred (although it is probably not unrelated to the sudden onset on migraneous episodes I experienced) I can at least exist without the constant worry of whether I will continue to lose the hearing that I still have at a remarkably rapid rate. I can honestly say that I wasn’t aware of how much that was a weight on my shoulders, until it wasn’t there anymore.
This past summer, Doug Rocks-Macqueen wrote a series posts on disability and archaeology (for a round-up, see this post on David Mennear’s blog, which also has some great posts on disability in archaeology). These posts were an interesting combination of both personal experience and interpretations of the data available. As a result of my own rather sudden change in sensory perception, I have over the last three years, become increasingly contemplative on how deafness, specifically, is experienced within archaeology. Therefore, inspired by Doug’s openness, I plan to use my next few blogposts to discuss some of the subjects that I feel are important, focussing on my own experiences within academic archaeology, archaeological fieldwork, and the ever elusive archaeological or academic employment.
So, now that I have introduced the idea, I thought I might start with a brief wander through some of the issues with terminology and public (and personal) perception.
I have mild to moderate hearing loss. This means that at many frequencies, the quietest sounds I can hear are between 20 – 40dB (mild) and at some frequencies they are between 40 -50dB (moderate – although the ‘moderate’ definition goes to 70dB). The chart below shows which sounds are associated with different frequencies and the decibels (dBs) required to perceive them.
I have sensorineural hearing loss, which means the reason I cannot hear is because my auditory nerves are damaged. I describe my own audiogram as being a bit like a ‘wonky rainbow’, because I am less able to hear lower and higher frequencies – however the ones in the middle are a little better. The NHS would define me as being ‘hard of hearing’ (you are defined as ‘deaf’ once your hearing loss is severe to profound, meaning the quietest sound you can hear is more than 70dB).
In the past, people have used the phrase ‘hearing impaired’, however this particular terminology comes with connotations that some people do not agree with – namely that being unable to hear certain things (or at all) is an impairment and not just an individual variation. Personally, I am okay with describing my own situation as being hearing impaired – but this is because three years ago I could hear more than I can now and I have not yet become accustomed to being able to hear less. Perhaps the longer I live with this level of hearing and the more I adjust to it being the norm, the less I will see this terminology as appropriate for me. I can certainly say that I feel significantly less impaired than I did initially, after having used hearing aids for over a year now and learning to adjust other aspects of my interactions with the rest of the world (or them adjusting theirs with me).
Even though it’s the ‘standard’ term now, I tend not to use ‘hard of hearing’ to describe my situation to others, mostly because I don’t feel it adequately reflects the reality of what exactly it encompasses. You usually get a response like, “Oh yes, sometimes I find it hard to hear things too.” or “I’LL JUST SHOUT THEN, SHALL I?” For a while I did try, “I’m partially deaf.” but that mostly confused people – either thinking I could hear only in one ear or the other, or that I could only hear very specific sounds – like all the high ones and no low ones or vice versa. I have instead settled upon saying, if I must explain it to someone, “I use hearing aids.” This usually has the desired effect of their paying attention long enough that I can go on to explain what I might need to do or what I may need from them in order to successfully: participate in the conversation, enjoy their presentation, order a burrito, etc.
Most of the time it isn’t something that requires an explanation. I just tick along in my life like I did before my hearing loss. However, there are definitely some things it has changed – some might be for the worse or even for the better, but much of it is just… changed for the different. It is my hope that throughout my series of blogposts on this subject it encourages you to think – and discuss – your own experiences or the experiences of others, whether specifically related to deafness or not, as we’ll come to see, many of the lessons I have learned apply to so much more.