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- Martha Weiman

The Invisible Disability

It’s called presbycusis, and more than 50% of people over 65 years of age are at some stage of this disability. It has been considered an age-related sensory-motor hearing loss; however, many younger people exposed for long periods of time to loud noises such as gunfire, chain saws or rock concerts are also suffering from this disease. It is a gradual process of degeneration in the inner ear. Once the cilia­—tiny hairs attached to the nerve endings in the cochlea—die as a result of the aging process or noise damage, they do not regenerate.

Phonic regression, which causes degenerative changes in the central auditory pathways, also contributes to this hearing loss. It causes poor perception of words; hearing becomes difficult in noisy environments, or when speech is rapid and unfamiliar, as in the theater or at lectures.
Those of us who have developed presbycusis tend to become more and more reclusive. We see the looks of impatience on the faces of our friends and family when we ask them to repeat what they have just said. And we feel infinitely stupid when we misinterpret what has just been said. Recently for instance, thinking that my friend had asked me if I had a dime, and I had begun to search through my purse to find one, she asked curiously, “What are you doing?” When I told her, she burst into laughter. “I asked if you had the time!”

Such misunderstandings eventually cause us to feel less and less comfortable with other people. It becomes easier to eat alone, rather than sit silently at a table, unable to follow the conversation, and not daring to say anything for fear that we might misinterpret what was said. We no longer go to concerts or the theater, since very few are adequately wired with hearing facilities. Occasionally, I enjoy going to foreign films, since they have subtitles in English, which I can read, though I cannot hear the words. Fortunately most television sets can also supply subtitles to most of their programs, so we can keep up with the world around us.

What we would ask of those of you who can still hear is that you do not judge too severely when we say things out of context or ask you to repeat your remarks. We may not understand you even then, but we do keep trying!
Other ways to help:

  • Speak in a normal tone of voice. Shouting does not make your voice more distinct.
  • Always speak as clearly and as accurately as possible.
  • Keep your voice at about the same volume throughout the sentence.
  • Never talk from another room.
  • Get the person’s attention before you start talking.
  • Face the person directly and keep your hands away from your face while talking.
  • Reduce or eliminate background noise while carrying on a conversation.
  • Rephrase misunderstood phrases or sentences rather than repeating.
  • Do not turn away from the listener while speaking.
  • And, please, be patient.

Submitted by Sara Silverton, Congregant