Augmented reality: me and my hearing aids

Reality augmentation: a pair of hearing aids

My new best buds…

When I started out on this blog back in ’08 I made a passing observation about my age, having noticed I was increasingly lifting my glasses to read the date on my watch. Not long afterwards I upgraded to varifocals. Now I have another upgrade to report: I have acquired hearing aids.

It was not an easy transition. On the face of it, why wouldn’t getting a pair of hearing aids be just like getting glasses? You can even get them from opticians these days. But it’s a much bigger deal and it’s taken me at least two years to get over my… embarrassment.

I’ve endured tinnitus in my right ear for four or five years now and I had a clear diagnosis of hearing loss in late 2018, but couldn’t bring myself to give hearing aids a try. However, I’ve grown tired of manoeuvring myself into position in meetings, turning my better left ear towards conversants and, as often as not, cupping it to hear questions from students. And my family have been losing patience with me for not noticing that they’ve spoken, or wanting to turn up the TV or turn on the subtitles. It was time to listen to what they – and my ears – were telling me.

When I finally went back to Specsavers a couple of weeks ago, the audiologist told me that I was ahead of the pack. Maybe he was just being nice, but apparently most men wait about 10 years before asking for help. How typical of us.

Lockdown probably made the decision easier because I’m working from home and less likely to be out and about. Most of my interactions with colleagues and friends are straight to camera so my ears are less in view. Even if I do turn my head, social distancing from the barber over the last few months means that the little pods tucked behind my ears are largely hidden from view.

Side view of Stephen's head - with hearing aid bud just visible

Over ear

I’m still adjusting to a brighter world of sound. I am hearing more and finding it easier to keep up with conversation. My voice sounds stranger to me, somehow sharper and more metallic, and my footfall on our creaking kitchen floor cracks my head like never before. I’m told my brain will accommodate my augmented reality and to help with that the hearing aids are slowly increasing the gain over the first three weeks. Given that my disability is age-related, it is some comfort to know that my body still has some capacity to respond to the world.

The nerd in me is enjoying the Bluetooth capabilities of my new best buds. I can now accept a call on my iPhone by tapping on a button just behind my ear. Music from my phone is also routed directly to my ear drums – no headphones required. These little techno-joys help to offset some of the discomfiture of my confrontation with infirmity, even if I’m still not sure about my calendar pinging right inside my head to remind be of an upcoming Zoom call. Which I guess is a reminder that all of our realities have been ‘augmented’ these days.

 

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16 Responses to Augmented reality: me and my hearing aids

  1. Wow. Didn’t know they were Bluetooth-enabled these days, though I suppose I should have guessed. Can they pick up 5G Evil-rays as well?

  2. Stephen says:

    Ha – not tested the 5G capabilities yet, Austin.

  3. Lisa says:

    Way ahead of you, I got a hearing aid when I was 21!

    Surprisingly enough, I have found that I am using my hearing aid far less during lockdown. I guess that is one of the ‘benefits’ of being hard of hearing from birth – coping strategies develop far more quickly. Since most videoconferencing solutions bring up the face of whoever is talking, it works incredibly well for lipreaders like me. Not to mention that it is very easy to simply turn the volume up.

    That said – while I do not usually comment here, I would like to ask people to reconsider ‘hiding’ hearing aids.
    While I realize facing these changes is hard, I do not comprehend why a hearing aid is something to keep hidden. Firstly, most people become hard of hearing at a later age, so this is a perfectly normal experience. Secondly, all hearing loss, especially more complicated causes of hearing loss (think Meniere’s disease), comes with profound mental consequences. Removing the stigma around hearing loss is incredibly helpful in paving the way for others who might face it at some point.

    I do not think anyone has ever noticed my hearing aid without me pointing it out. Usually, they just think I have a very thick gray hair and am on the spectrum. There is an added burden in having a hidden disability; while you do not get discriminated on sight, the onus is on you to advocate for yourself and to get people to treat you in a way that is not discriminatory. By being open about our disabilities, we can adjust ‘abled’ expectations from others, making it easier for anyone who is less able-bodied to be understood as the person they are.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Lisa. I too have found video calls easier on the ear than meetings in real rooms. So much so that I’m wondering about taking my hearing aids off while ‘at work’ (at home). I’ve discovered that the over-ear headphones I’ve bought are not as comfortable as the in-ear ones that I was using previously so I may switch back.

      And your point about not hiding the hearing aids is well made. I guess that was partly why I thought I would blog about it but you have fortified me to opt for a proper haircut when I next go to the barber’s.

      • Lisa says:

        Yes, as a regular reader I did appreciate this blog post. It is wonderful to see that people are being more open about disabilities; it really does pave the way for a more just society.

        Tangentially related, real meetings, especially conferences, can still be challenging even with a hearing aid. Most importantly, newer concrete buildings often have significant problems with acoustics. While you will probably get used to the hearing aid, problematic acoustics became a larger issue for me after the hearing aid. Since the device amplifies most reverberations and voices, listening can become exhausting and sources of speech impossible to identify. Such issues can easily be remedied by implementing universal design principles, e.g. improving room acoustics by putting up sound-absorbing panels or curtains.

        Unfortunately, I am not in a position of power to get this done in my department. Hence the importance of disability awareness in older academics!

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Thanks for this post. I had a free Specsavers test about a year ago and they said ‘moderate hearing loss’. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. They suggested a hearing aid but I couldn’t get over the suspicion that it might all be a ruse to part me from my money. These things aren’t cheap!

    I am switching on TV subtitles more often now, and struggle to hear people if they are a little quiet. Interesting to hear your experience of a ‘brighter world of sound’.

    I think my next step is to ask the GP for a referral for an NHS hearing test and take it from there.

  5. Liz Chiu says:

    When my husband finally went for a hearing test he had 80% hearing loss in one ear, 5o% in the other. You cannot imagine the joy on his face on putting in the hearing aids and actually being able to hold a conversation without struggling. Thanks for sharing, Stephen, so important.

  6. Maria Ivonne Bastidas says:

    Thank you for sharing your interesting experiences on hearing loss and hearing aids, I have some problems with hearing properly and these post have definitively made my mind about getting help.I am working in the EYEC and having the capacity to hear properly it is very important.

  7. Melanie Lee says:

    Thank you so much for your post Stephen. The impact and weight of stigma regarding ‘hidden disabilities’ can impede our ‘coming out’ – examples such as yours – self-acceptance and self-advocacy in-spite of prejudice – inspires us all to make that personal step into an ‘augmented reality’.
    Hoping you’re enjoying the early morning summer birdsong!

  8. Diane Thomason says:

    That “sharp” quality of some sounds will fade as you get used to them. If after a few weeks it’s still a problem, they’ll be able to do some adjustments for you.

  9. Steve Caplan says:

    Interesting post! I acquired hearing aids (likely for damage done as an artilleryman years ago) about 8-9 months ago and it’s been a great experience overall. Many of your descriptions are apt–one thing I’d add is I never realized before how much time and effort I had been making to keep up and follow conversations–because as it turns out, it’s not only about volume but also being able to distinguish between different phonetic sounds more readily. And the blue tooth connection is an added bonus–now my family has the same problem because I don’t hear them when listening to music or audiobooks…
    Enjoy!

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