Can You Repeat the Question – A Hearing Loss Story

Can You Repeat the Question – A Hearing Loss Story

By James Crowder

Editor: The feedback I get from readers indicates that many of you really like the “human interest” stories about hearing loss. We have a great one here! The author is James Crowder, Associate Professor of Biology at Brookdale Community College. The article first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


“It snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking.”

That was my response to an acquaintance who, several months ago, appeared beside me and demanded to know why I was suddenly wearing a hearing aid. In hindsight, it seems I was attempting to use humor to defuse my embarrassment at being asked a fairly personal question by someone I didn’t know terribly well. But as I think about it, my response was actually more truthful than perhaps I had first realized.

When I was a kid, I was often accused of being a daydreamer. My teachers and my relatives would, from time to time, become annoyed that I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. I also failed the hearing tests given by the school nurse at my elementary school. No one made the connection between the two.

I wasn’t aware I had any kind of serious hearing problem until I was in my midteens, when I was vying for an ROTC scholarship. Those scholarships are very competitive, and, among other things, require the applicant to have a physical and other diagnostic tests. Most of the details of that screening process are forever trapped in a miasma of quiet rooms and paper gowns, but, now, almost 20 years later, I distinctly recall the conversation I had with the audiologist administering my hearing test.

“You’ve basically got the hearing of a much older man. That ear’s particularly bad,” he said, pointing to my right ear as he spoke.

“Do I need a hearing aid?”

“Wouldn’t help,” he replied.

That was true at the time. My hearing loss couldn’t have been helped by the analog hearing aids available then, which basically made all sounds louder. Although I have a very hard time picking up the frequencies of the human voice in my right ear, I can hear very high-pitched and low-pitched sounds well. With an analog hearing aid, I would have been wincing every time I heard whistling or whispering, or the rumble of a truck barreling down the street.

The digital hearing aid that I wear now is great. It amplifies only the frequencies I can’t hear. This technology didn’t really come around to the masses, I’m told, until the early 1990s. At that time, I was in college and then graduate school. I was concerned with doing experiments and making grades. My hearing problem was never even a blip on my radar.

In fact, I had spent virtually my entire life doing what many other people with hearing loss do: I had subconsciously taught myself to adapt. It wasn’t until I “rediscovered” my hearing loss that I recognized my penchant for always sitting on the extreme right-hand side of a room, or for answering the telephone with my left hand despite the fact that I’m right-handed.

My rediscovery occurred a couple of years ago when I was lying in bed on my left side and my wife came into the room and said, “Jim, can’t you hear me talking to you?” She had been calling my name, louder and louder, from about 30 feet away in my daughter’s bedroom. Despite the fact that she had been practically shouting, and that both bedroom doors were open, I hadn’t heard a thing.

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. After putting it off for more than a year, I am wearing a BTE (behind the ear) hearing aid. My wife and daughters were happy for me to the point of being almost ecstatic. But what was it going to be like at work — in the classroom and in departmental meetings?

While I never felt at all traumatized about it, I confess I had reservations about suddenly showing up at work with this contraption on my ear. I didn’t want to become “the professor with the hearing aid.” I didn’t want it to become my defining characteristic. But there aren’t too many people in their 30s wearing hearing aids. So, I worried, it would be perfectly normal for people to use my hearing aid as an easy way to identify me.

Suddenly, the hearing aid seemed like some powerful parasite that had latched onto my ear and was going to drain my essence. It would be counted first, then me. I’d just be the host.

If you think that sounds a bit silly or dramatic, you have probably never had to deal with having a disability.

Thankfully, the more rational part of my mind won the battle. If I’m not bothered by being called “the professor with the beard,” why in the world should I be bothered by being “the professor with a hearing aid”?

I resolved to make my hearing aid a nonissue by walking the line. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to it, but when I’ve seen friends and colleagues noticing it, I’ve said things like, “Did I show you my new hardware?” I’ve actually taken the hearing aid out on a number of occasions if someone has shown interest in how it worked.

I have no intention of parading it around to everyone on the campus, but I have made sure to introduce the topic to the people in my department and other people at work who I’m close to, so they don’t think I’m so sensitive about it that they have to pretend not to notice it or go out of their way not to mention it.

If one of my students asks me a question in class, and I can’t hear it, I’ll reach behind my ear, turn up the volume on the hearing aid a bit, and ask the student to repeat the question. If I have to ask a student or colleague to repeat a question more than once, I’ll say, “I’m sorry. I’m hard of hearing in this ear. Could you say that again, please?” I’ve tried to show my students and colleagues that I am comfortable with the device.

I’ve been very pleased at just how little things have actually changed. Although I still have conversations with the odd student or co-worker who stares at my ear instead of looking me in the eye (I recall one student in particular staring at me, mouth agape, as if I had a pumpkin growing out of my ear), that has happily been the exception rather than the rule.

Additionally, when I was worrying about how my hearing problem would be perceived, I spent so much time pondering the potential negatives that I never considered the positives.

In one of my classes this semester, I had a student who, at first, sat in the back and basically kept to herself. I couldn’t tell from her mannerisms if she was getting the material, nor could I gather any information from her facial expressions because her long hair always seemed to partially obscure them.

The first overt facial expression of hers that came to my notice was a curious look that she gave me after I reached behind my ear to turn up my hearing aid. I get the same look all the time from people; despite the fact that I sometimes feel as if this gadget is the size of a softball, many people don’t seem to notice it immediately.

Slowly, over the course of the semester, the student stopped hiding and seemed to really become a part of the class, in her own quiet way.

About two-thirds of the way through the semester, I walked into class one day and noticed that she was wearing her hair up. I don’t really know why I noticed. I suppose it was because every other time I had seen her, in the same seat at the back of the class, for 20 class meetings or so, it had always been down. I also noticed that she was smiling.

It was at about the midpoint of that day’s class, as I was explaining excitation-contraction coupling (or some similar monstrosity), that I saw it.

She had a hearing aid in her right ear.