How my disability made me a better parent, Eventually...
I am hearing impaired. I spent a large portion of my life not knowing it. I have lived most of my life in a small town area in the middle of the great white north and firearm use was a way of life. I worked on a drilling rig, with clanging metal and screaming diesel engines 12 hours a day. My hearing was continually under assault from the time I was walking. We didn’t know what hearing protection was until the mid 80’s when OSHA started enforcing our hearing protection on the jobs in our area, and at the time we thought it was silly. By the early 90’s studies were out and we were aware of them that showed that hearing loss was a real issue, and we all started working to protect our hearing, however, in my case it was too little to late. I have substantial loss at both ends of my hearing range, and at some point tinnitus set in. I had it so long that I didn’t realize it was my ears (or my brain) I thought that was just the way nature and air sounded.
For 20 years I slowly became more and more antisocial, more walled off to everyone. I didn’t realize I was doing it and I certainly didn’t know why, but in retrospect, it was due to my hearing loss. I was socially awkward because I was guessing so much at what was being said. I would think I heard a question, which I would answer, to a sea of confused faces because I had said something completely off subject. Loud crowded spaces intimidated me because it is hard to lipread in a large group and with all the ambient noise of a crowd, hearing anything was impossible. Large loud indoor spaces, like water parks became a special kind of hell as the rushing splashing water seemed to flood the only frequencies I could hear in. My stress level when out in public was elevating and my temper and patience with my children was becoming nonexistent. In general, life for my family and I was getting more impossible and we didn’t know what to do about it.
Several years ago at the request of my doctor, I went in for a hearing test. (I am getting older and they want to test many new things now…) The soundproof booth they put me in to test me made it very obvious, the ringing in my ears was prominent. From then on, I couldn’t stop hearing it. It was the same as a dead pixel on a monitor. You can look at that monitor every day for a year and not see it, but as soon as someone points it out, you can never unsee it again. After that, I was very bothered by it. I knew I had an issue, I started to see the way it was affecting me and I with my family’s assistance started taking steps to correct it. One of the first changes we made was to teach the children to not walk in to a conversation and begin talking. Not only is that rude, but when I am focused on a conversation, I can be completely unaware of the child or what they are saying. Instead, my wife had the idea (and I have no idea where she heard it, but if I figure it out, I will post it) to explain to the child what is going on. To be honest with them about my disability, and ask them to help me by walking up and simply touching my arm instead of talking. When they do, I feel them, I am aware of them, and as soon as the conversation hits a pause point, I will turn and look at them. They will have my attention at that moment and there is so much less frustration because we are all in the same moment at the same point and able to focus. I can address their issue quickly and succinctly and then move back into my conversation with much less distraction than having a child standing in the periphery chanting “Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad….” As they tend to do.
Also as soon as I was aware of the disability, I became aware of the coping techniques that I had already naturally developed. I have compared the process that the hearing impaired mind goes thru to listen intelligently to doing a timed crossword puzzle with playing telephone with children while trying to remember a grocery list. What I mean is this. There are many words that come at my ears during a conversation. I can not hear all of them, but worse, I can only hear part of most of them, so my brain is trying to very quickly paste enough of them together in a sentence to be able to interpolate the rest. This often doesn’t happen on the first try, so as the speaker is continuing on, my brain is still trying to solve the puzzle that are the words of the first sentence, but all that while, it has to store all the sounds of the second sentence so that it can repeat the process. At the end of a seemingly brief dialogue, my brain is exhausted. It has just pulled a double shift as a control center for my body, as a I/O panel for my environment, but also as an enigma machine decrypting the conversation on the fly. Telephone conversations are even worse as those decryptions are done with no visual queues.
Understanding the process is definitely only half the battle though. Once you can identify the process, the failure points and the easy bits, you can implement changes in your environment and your routine to maximize the easy bits and minimize the failure points. In this regard, a child, a kind compassionate young boy of 7 (otherwise known of as 50 pounds of noise covered in dirt) can be a real asset. Once they understand the short coming and have been enlisted to help, they can be a real value. I see the ways that my aging father is struggling with his hearing loss and now that I know what my body and mind are doing to cope, I can assume his are doing some of the same and the same way junior wants to help me, I can help my dad. I often take the time to point out exactly how I am helping Grandpa to junior, and then explain to him how he can do the same to assist me in daily life. I am amazed at how willing and helpful a child can be when taught with love and kindness. We tried many different techniques to allow the children to be heard but not be overstimulating me, and the one that made the most difference was this.
As I said earlier, visual queues are a real benefit, so instead of having the boys come in and just start spouting “Dad, Dad, Dad” to get my attention. I taught them to come in and tap my arm. This sounds so simple, but when I am actively engaged in a conversation, I can become very oblivious to my surroundings as my brain, eyes and ears, basically all my attention is focused on the person I am trying to talk to. A child can walk in, try to ask a question and I will not even realize they are there. They just become background noise that my brain actively filters out so that I can hear. Now what became apparent is that a child tapping everyone they want to interrupt is also seen as rude by other people, family members and guests, so we needed to update the idea. My wife thought of, or read about, the idea of having the child come in and rest their hand on my arm. As I realize the purpose of that gesture, I place my hand over theirs. Now they know that I recognize them and will give them attention as soon as possible and they don’t interrupt at all. As soon as there is a break in the conversation, usually at the end of the next sentence, I excuse myself from the conversation, turn to my child and give them my undivided attention. I find that this way, they can wait easier because they know they are about to be heard, I can deal with them quicker as I am not processing two conversation streams at once, and the solution has the ability to be much more thought out. They leave happy, I have less issues, and the person I am talking to gets much more of my attention much quicker and with fewer interruptions so everyone wins. There are many other tactics I use and I would be happy to make a thoughtful post just regarding those at a later date. However, for now, back to the thought at hand…
During this process of growth and teaching it became obvious to me that I needed more help than a child and spouse could give, so I made two changes in my life that benefitted me greatly and I will share those now.
First, I got a captioning phone! They are inexpensive (often free) and they take the mental heavy lifting out of a simple phone call. I am in my forties and trust me, admitting that I need an assistive device is like admitting that I am not superman! (Even though I really am, but don’t tell anyone…) However, it is worth it. It took me about 20 min to get used to it and it helps so much. I have so much more confidence now that I can simply wait a second and see exactly what was said. I am not responding to what I hear, or don’t hear, or think I hear, but what is actually said. When I think of how much easier my life is now that I have it I almost tear up. I know, I am supposed to be tough and all that, but until you loose use of a sense, even partially, then get it back again, you have no idea how powerful of an emotional response that triggers. As for the tech, mine is a unit from CaptionCall. They seem to be a reputable company, I have a close friend that installs them in my area now. (He also is hearing impaired) This isn't an advertisement, and I am not getting paid to say this, but they are worth it no matter which brand you get, if you are hearing impaired, get a captioning phone. (I will link his contact info at the bottom, not because I am pushing a product, but because if you are hearing impaired, you NEED one of these. It will help and you will love it. After all, I just want to help)
The second thing I did was save my money and get a nice pair of hearing aides. This is the best money I have ever spent. They are expensive, very expensive, and there are several groups like HLAA that are working tirelessly to get insurance to help with them as a medical necessity, but until that happens (and it should soon, it is ridiculous that they are not already covered… but that can be a rant for another post…) spend the money, no matter how much, it is worth it. Your whole family will benefit. Don’t think of it as something for you, think of it as an investment for your whole family. A good set of hearing aides, properly tuned and fitted by a quality audiologist is as important to the health safety and welfare of your family as a fire alarm, smoke detector or family car. Aside from that, it is worth it just for your own health, sanity and quality of life. The first time I heard a live musician playing an acoustic guitar after getting my hearing aides, I openly wept. I did not realize how much of the world, of the music, of life I had been missing. The difference is so stark that I really can’t stand to NOT wear them. The units I got were specially designed to help with Tinnitus, and I was amazed that after a very short time, the majority of the ringing just went away. Again, this isn’t an ad and I am not selling them or getting paid to mention them, heck, I won’t even tell the brand, but I can say that if this is something that bothers you or someone you love, contact me and I will be happy to share my whole story complete with Dr. Names and brands. There are few things in my life that have helped me as much as being able to hear again.
Lastly, I will tell you the best part and the reason for the title. Now that I have learned the cause for the issues, have addressed them all with the help of my wife and children, I can hear better and my world is not a constant squeal or ring. Now that I can function normally in crowds, enjoy my children's concerts and do all those things more comfortably, it would be easy to say life could get “back to normal”, except that I lived with my impairment for so long that was ‘normal’. Also after learning the coping skills, and teaching those with some helpful etiquette to the children, I find that we do not want to go back. It is wonderful having children that walk into a room and quietly walk over and hold my arm until it is their turn to speak. I find that being able to give them my undivided attention for brief periods like that keeps them more satisfied and me less stressed. We have rooms now in the house that are dedicated noise rooms and designated quiet rooms. We all try to honor those conditions and live aware of our volume level, our location, our proximity to others and how our noise affects them.
I know this has had very little to do with technology, but it has a lot to do with parenting and everything to do with who I am and why I see the world the way I do.
Remember that if you have an impairment, no one in the world wants to help you more than your family does, they just may need to be shown how. Give them respect, love and kindness and they will give it back.