A Hearing Spectrum

A few weeks ago, I heard a really interesting piece on CBC radio regarding autism. The show was essentially debating whether the condition reflected a black-white, binary difference between individuals with the disorder or whether the disorder itself, isn’t even a disorder, but just an extreme end of a spectrum of neurodiversity, wherein all brains are normal, because no two brains are the same. Similar trends of looking at the “greyscale” of issues is also occurring for topics such as gender, sexuality and politics. This may not be a complete parallel to hearing but its an interesting way to look at things.

At a big-picture level, the difference between ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing’ is not at all binary. Deafness in itself can be considered a whole spectrum from individuals with absolutely no hearing sensitivity at all (incredibly rare) to individuals who can maybe make use of some environmental sounds, to individuals who can hear speech but still rely on signing or lipreading.

If we call that side “hearing-left” then what does the “hearing-right” side of the spectrum look like? At the far end could be a young adult, with above normal thresholds, and excellent speech-in-noise abilities. Move over a step and you might find a middle aged person who’s hearing ability falls in the normal range, but they may have trouble in crowded restaurants. Move over a little more, and you could expect to see a person whose hearing thresholds fall below normal, but can still function well in non-complex listening environments.

So where might I fit? I think that’s a question that many individuals who wear hearing aids face, whether they recognize it or not. With my hearing aids removed, I’m way to the left. Call my name at the pool and I probably won’t turn my head. Yell at me to get out of the shower and I won’t budge. With my hearing aids in however, I manage fairly well. I’d argue that in a comfortable listening environment I can be close to the far right extreme. But, start changing the acoustic environment and I’ll slide to the left a lot faster than people with ‘normal’ hearing. The furnace kicks on, thats one step left. Busy restaurant or a professor with a heavy accent, thats a few steps further. Crowded bar with music pumping and all of a sudden I’m way at the left end. Though the technology I wear make the world around me loud enough, my inner ear and brain will never be able to process these sounds as well as a ‘normal’ hearing individual.

And maybe that’s where the biggest difficulties for people with hearing aids lie. We’re far more susceptible to movement across the spectrum than other individuals. We’re able to  excell at the far right side at times, but sometimes our confidence can be shattered by falling all the way to the left depending on the situation we are in. As well, its important for me to mention that being someone who wears hearing aids does not denote an assigned spot on this spectrum. Everyone with hearing aids fits a slightly different place, and may cover a wider or narrow band of this spectrum. Even two individuals with the same hearing impairment, fit with hearing aids at the same time can occupy completely different places on this spectrum. The reasons for this are numerous and to a large extent, not fully understood.

Though rehabilitation and technology can broaden the range of the hearing spectrum that individuals with hearing aids can access, it maybe in some way hurts us by never allowing us to have a “home” – a set of situations and environments where we are truly, completely sure of our listening abilities.

This look at the spectrum doesn’t even begin to describe the way we go about describing ourselves – deaf? hearing? somewhere in the middle that doesn’t truly have a proper name? Look out for this in my next post.

Below is my idea of what a hearing spectrum might look like. Anything you would change? As always, feel free to share any thoughts you may have below, or on Twitter or Facebook. Thanks for reading.


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