Imagine getting an email or a letter in which all the consonants are removed. That’s what it is like when I hear – pretty much all the time. I have congenital binaural nerve deafness; fancy for I can’t hear well in either ear, since birth.
The way it manifests itself is pretty much as I described; I hear vowel sounds very well, but consonants are hard to hear or differentiate. The words, ‘pall’, ‘ball’ and my first name all sound the same. That’s because vowel sounds are all voiced; it requires your voice box to vibrate to make those sounds. Consonants are not voiced – they are made by clicks or other high-pitched noises that are not rich and resonating like vowel sounds.
The nerve deafness means that the sounds might well get to my ears, they just don’t get transmitted to my brain. And I have never known any other life but this. I don’t “miss” being able to hear better because I never could. I do wish I could hear better, though, because I very often misunderstand people, and because of that I am also misunderstood by others.
I wasn’t given special consideration or help for this in school. My problem wasn't severe enough. My parents made my teachers aware of it in grade school when my problem was discovered and I was told to sit in the front of the class and ask for things to be repeated when necessary. I was lucky enough to have teachers who articulated well.
Articulation is the key to being heard by me. Volume helps, too, but there are some frequencies that will never make it to my ears. On a summer day, when the window is open, my wife will often say how lovely it sounds to hear the birds. “It’s like a jungle out there!” she’ll say; when the crickets or tree frogs go bananas some nights she makes the same remark. I don’t hear it as well or at all. It’s not a bad thing, though – every few years when the cicadas come out, you go crazy driving through the country but I move on almost oblivious to it.
I have had to get by in spite of this problem, though. I was never allowed to use it as an excuse. As I got into college I remembered to sit close to the front and ask teachers to repeat things during or after class. That had the advantage of getting me noticed, which didn't hurt. But if I ever complained that I didn't hear an assignment, my parents would not accept it as an answer. It would be the same as a kid with glasses saying he didn't read something because he didn't have his glasses. I was told how to get by and expected to cope.
I only use my hearing as an excuse once, in a linguistics class. The teacher pronounced many different phonemes for an exam, and were expected to write the proper IPA symbol that corresponded to the sound on the exam paper. I was unable to distinguish between certain sounds, like the hard t and d sounds (think ‘tuh’ and ‘duh’). He took pity on me and advised me not to become a speech pathologist.
It’s still difficult, though. I work with many people who – love and respect them as I may – are low talkers or breathers. That breathy voice that some people love in Clint Eastwood or Marilyn Monroe is not a turn-on for me. And yeah, some people just mumble.
I know a woman who took articulation classes as a girl and when I first met her and listened to her I just about had a crush on her. I could understand every word she said.
But not everyone talks like my friend. So I have to get by with other strategies. Some things that help:
- Seeing a person’s face, specially their lips – if I can watch you speak, I can tell whether you’re making a t or a d sound on a word, and also I can note your expression and mood and determine that what you’re talking about is sad, or happy, and use that as a heuristic to help me narrow down the meaning of what you are saying.
- Noticing their body language – likewise, if I can read your bodily expressions, I can better guess at what you are saying.
- Context – knowing what we are discussing helps me determine that we are talking about “jarring” when we are discussing canning, and not “charring” or “tarring”.
- Being away from white noise or the noise of many other speakers – if there is a lot of white noise or other people talking, you had better get real close and yell.
- Being near a person – consonant sounds are lost over distances. I can hear you, but I can only hear half of everything you say – just the vowels.
- Re-playing and analyzing sounds in my head – sometimes I have to take what a person just said and repeat it to myself until it makes sense with all the other clues that I have; if I think about it long enough I realize that you’re not telling me to “bake the hall” but “take the ball”. This takes time, and sometimes while I may appear to be zoning out, I might actually be replaying what you said to me in my head. Other times, yeah, I am zoning out.
- Guessing, and faking – sometimes I just guess. Or I fake it: a lot of talk between humans is unimportant, idle chit-chat and if I can tell that a person is telling me a happy story that has no immediate critical impact on me or my life, then I just smile and nod my head a lot and say, “wow” or “that’s nice”; if I can tell the story is sad I shake my head and tsk-tsk or or say, “that stinks!”. With complete strangers that’s just fine. They rarely ever know the difference, and some people tell me what a great and attentive listener I am. Sometimes it backfires; if I think a person is talking about a person named Tony, downstairs, who is a man of great means, they might get irritated at me for shaking my head an agreeing but not going downstairs to get the can of baked beans.
I can’t speak for everyone who has a hearing problem, and I certainly do not know what it is like to be completely deaf. But for people like me I can offer the above as an explanation to our behavior and an insight into how we get by. Perhaps it will help you the next time you have to deal with us.