Everyday, we wake up, have some breakfast, get ourselves ready for the day. Everyday, one in six Australians do this while factoring in a hearing disability. Many of us are none the wiser that these individuals may be facing any different morning stresses than the rest of us. What we don’t see is the planning that commonly goes into the tasks of those 3.55 million people living with hearing loss. Is my hearing aid on correctly? Do I know where I need to sit for my lecture today? Will I be working in a group? Academic impacts of hearing difficulties are well recognised, but what can go unnoticed are the social repercussions of being deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Jackie Dowling has seen these challenges in communication up close for many years, being the mother of a profoundly deaf son and having 18 years of experience working in the Oral Deaf facility at Mount View Primary School in Glen Waverley.
In their desire to understand and be able to provide support for their children through informing themselves on hearing impairment, parents can become overly focused on the medical (physical) challenges faced by the family. Despite their best intentions, parents may overlook the pragmatic skills (such as social cues like “please” and “thank you”, eye contact and smiling), which can result in hurdles in social settings later on.
Alongside general curriculum, these skills are a key area of focus in Ms Dowling’s sessions.
“[Pragmatics] need to be, for many kids [involved with the facility], more explicit,” says Ms. Dowling. These details, necessary for “developing language for polite interaction”, are frequently lost in the broader conversation. This can impact upon these children’s development of friendships in the schoolyard, as “little kids may not be as forgiving or understanding.”
A lack of confidence and self esteem commonly arises from having a hearing disability, as experienced firsthand by university student, Jack Dowling. He has learned to “embrace being impaired as part of who [he is].” Growing up it was not so easy.
“Over the years it severely impacted my confidence, as I wasn’t sure how [somebody] would react to someone with a disability,” he says. “I have often…wished I could hear fine.”
This lack of confidence can occur at any age, as demonstrated by Matthew Pruys, who became hard-of-hearing in his mid-twenties following the removal of an acoustic neuroma. Having grown up with full hearing, Mr Pruys had to go through a big adjustment period.
“[My] confidence was definitely rattled in the first few months,” he says. Despite being a social guy with support from his family and friends, Pruys felt “pretty isolated when [he] was with mates,” particularly in venues such as pubs and crowded bars. “I definitely don’t head out to really noisy bars or clubs anymore, as it’s just no fun,” he says, an experience shared by Jack Dowling.
The combination of communication difficulties and impacted self-esteem commonly prevents deaf individuals from initiating conversations or friendships. It can be confronting for anybody to take that first social step. Hearing-impaired individuals, particularly those born or diagnosed with difficulties early in life, have the added strain of developing language and speech more slowly than their peers (this level of difficulty also influenced by the severity of hearing loss, age of diagnosis, and personal characteristics).
They may not be able to hear their own voices when they speak, resulting in an inappropriate volume being used, or may miss soft speech sounds such as “f” or “sh”, therefore not including them in their words and making their own speech more difficult for others to comprehend.
This is a factor considered by Mount View’s facility. The teachers encourage students to bring a classmate to their sessions once a week or so, to “help bridge that gap of making friends.”
The social impacts of hearing impairments aren’t limited to the deaf person.
“It took some getting used to from both my end and my mates end to make sure I was in the best possible spot for hearing,” reflects Mr Pruys; a consideration also translated into his work life. Pruys had to ask his boss to assign him a desk that was to everyone’s left side to ensure his inclusion in conversations or brainstorming sessions.
In interviews conducted between deaf individuals and their partners, support organization Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for Deaf People) found that frustrations and challenges in relationships often arose through a hearing-partner’s difficulty in understanding the nature of hearing loss and its implications.
A female participant in the study (names were not published to respect privacy) reflected on this in her interview.
“With hearing loss it depends on how tired you are; how much you have to concentrate. How well you hear depends on… the timbre and pitch of people’s voices and so it’s difficult for somebody who doesn’t have hearing loss to understand how all these factors come into play”.
Similarly, children living with this sensory deprivation often come into conflict in playgrounds and classrooms. For many of us, remembering lunchtimes at school brings back fond memories of playing footy on the oval, gossiping with friends, and loud games of ‘tag’. For students with a hearing difficulty, these environments can pose much more of a challenge than simply finding the best position for hide and seek.
Many students rejoice in the ability to forget their ‘inside voice’, instead “relying on information yelled from one to another,” says Ms. Dowling. The environment is less controlled than a classroom, and as such deaf students may miss rules of games being explained, or fragments of conversation. There is more background noise and likely to be more than one person talking at a time, making lip-reading difficult, often leaving the hard-of-hearing student feeling left out, or forgotten.
Fortunately, with continual developments in aural technology and early screening processes becoming more accessible (Victoria achieving statewide coverage of hospitals in 2012), the difficulties of hearing disabilities are being minimized. There is greater quality of sound enabled through more modern, compact models of hearing aids and cochlear implants, and families are readily educated and assisted in developing strategies to live with this sensory deprivation. However, social challenges persist, demonstrating the importance of ongoing support, and understanding of the difficulties faced.
Written by Megan Whitfield
*photos not included for privacy preferences
 Understanding acquired from Jaqueline (Jackie) Dowling
 Personal interview conducted with Jaqueline (Jackie) Dowling
 Personal interview conducted with Jack Dowling
 Personal interview conducted with Matthew Pruys