Coping with Hearing Loss

If we had to make the choice, most of us would choose deafness over blindness—right? Wrong, says Katherine Bouton, whose hearing loss began at 30; she reminds us of Helen Keller’s famous observation that hearing loss is more devastating than blindness because it deprives us of “the intellectual company of man.” In Shouting Won’t Help (Sarah Crichton Books), Bouton, a former New York Times editor, writes eloquently of a condition that is far more common than we think.

by Judith Newman
Shouting Won't Help image
Photograph: Avery Powell

MORE: We don’t hesitate to wear glasses, but many of us feel odd getting hearing aids. Why are people more embarrassed about losing their hearing than their vision?

Katherine Bouton: Hearing loss is often associated with mental disability. But the biggest stigma is the association with age, though that’s somewhat misleading. Nearly two thirds of Americans 70 and over have hearing loss, but in fact half of the hearing-impaired population is under the age of 55.

MORE: What’s the biggest cause of hearing loss?

KB: Noise. OSHA has done a good job of mandating noise-protection measures in the workplace, but recreational noise—in concerts, stadiums, as part of activities like hunting, the ubiquitous iPods, in restaurants, on city streets—goes on unabated.

MORE: Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?

KB: If you’re at a loud concert or in a loud restaurant, try earplugs. You’ll probably still be able to hear quite well despite them.

MORE: In your book, you talk about the joys of noise, too. Now that you are functionally deaf, what sounds do you miss?

KB: Music is at the top of the list. Hearing loss and hearing aids cause distortion that makes most music unrecognizable. I also miss whispers—secrets. You don’t realize how precious they are till you can’t hear them anymore. And I miss jokes. They go by too fast; I may get the punch line but not the joke, or the joke and then miss the punch line.

MORE: What are the three best things you can do for a loved one who is having trouble hearing you?

KB: One, look at the person you’re speaking to. We hear with our eyes as well as with our ears, by intuitively reading lips and body language. Two, if the person doesn’t understand what you’ve said, don’t simply repeat it. Paraphrase it, put it into some context. The worst thing you can say is, “Never mind, it doesn’t matter.” Everything matters to the person who can’t hear it. Three, speak in a normal voice and articulate as clearly as possible. That’s where my title comes from: Shouting won’t help.

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First Published Wed, 2012-12-26 16:21

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