Juan Negroni (opinion): When ears hear poorly ... or not at all



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One morning in 1998 as I was getting out of bed, Sean-Patrick, 8 years old and deaf, walked into my room. My daughter, as a student at Boston College and afterward, had babysat him. I was staying in his parents’ house while attending a conference in Massachusetts.

I knew about his deafness, but it was the first time he and I were alone. So, I made hand gestures and mouthed my words slowly, hoping he would understand. All to no avail. That is all I remember about that morning.

My daughter went on to earn a graduate degree in deaf education from Columbia University. Sean-Patrick was the reason she became a teacher of the deaf. She has maintained a close relationship with him and his parents.

Over the years I have seen Sean-Patrick occasionally on his family trips to Connecticut. He has grown into a fine young man. A baseball enthusiast since his youth, as an adult he played professionally for the Old Orchard Beach team in Maine.

I hadn’t thought of that morning in Massachusetts until recently when a colleague told me I had a hearing problem. I disagreed, as did my wife. She would call me from a distant room, and I would hear her clearly. It was as if her voice filtered through the thickest walls of our house. So, I felt I had no problem taking in all the sounds of the world around me.

But as time went by, voices with high pitches started to irritate me. And the clanking of dishes and kitchenware became increasingly annoying. That led me to begin focusing more on my hearing. I soon realized I would confuse the initial sounds of certain words.

For instance, the name “Lena” sounded like “Nina.” I heard the number “55” when it was “65.” A friend who is a professional speaker said to me, “I’ve been booked to do a presentation on ...” What I heard her say was, “I’ve been hooked to do ...”

So, I sought the advice of our family expert on hearing, my daughter. From her I learned about “The Speech Banana.” She explained how human speech sounds can be plotted as dots by experts on audiograms. It’s the placement of speech sounds on an audiogram grid that makes the shape of a banana.

Audiograms, as my daughter further explained, are graphs showing the sounds a person can hear at different pitches or frequencies. They illustrate individuals’ abilities to distinguish specific vowels and letter combinations. That was my issue, and my daughter had called it spot on.

I became more conscious of my mishearing certain sounds. My daughter strongly urged me to go to an audiologist to have a hearing test.

I did not listen to her. But then a company asked me to evaluate its employee relations work environment. Among the group there was a problematic truck driver. I heard the facility manager say the driver was making “lewd” remarks to a female employee.

In a phone call with company executives, I was asked to provide a verbal assessment of the entire operation. Near the end of the call, I described the driver’s remarks as “lewd.” The facility manager corrected me emphatically, saying “I told you ‘rude,’ not ‘lewd.’” My mishearing could have created a problem for me — and a problem for the truck driver.

My daughter continued sharing her knowledge about hearing, and I began to do my own research. The factors contributing to hearing loss are countless. Most surprising to me were findings of the World Health Organization. It estimates that by 2050 2.5 billion people will be living with so some degree of hearing loss. And that more than 1 billion young adults are now at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices.

Moreover, I also learned there is no known way to reverse hearing loss. As to the latter my daughter said, “Many profoundly deaf adults since birth don’t think of being deaf as a loss. They just don’t hear.”

Many hearing-impaired people have succeeded. Beethoven was profoundly deaf for almost a decade when he wrote his ninth symphony.

Then there is the Rochester Institute of Technology junior, profoundly deaf since birth and a cochlear implant user with whom my daughter worked from kindergarten through high school. As part of receiving the Outstanding Scholar award along with his hearing peers, he was asked what teacher had the greatest impact on him over the years. He chose my daughter.

I did, of course, have my hearing tested. My daughter was with me for each appointment. It was as if she and the audiologist were speaking a different language, one I am slowly learning.

Fortunately, my hearing issues are minor in comparison with others. But the experience for me opened a new world about the challenges facing those who are deaf or hearing impaired.

One such challenge my daughter shared is that deaf/hard of hearing students don’t know what they don’t hear. They don’t know what they are missing, and they don’t know if what they hear is correct or incorrect.

I thought of my daughter’s words, “They don’t know what they’re missing ...” Earlier on in this column I said that I had mistakenly felt I had no problem taking in all the sounds of the world around me. Unknowingly, I was missing some of them. On the first day I had my hearing aids on, as we walked out of the audiologist office and into the parking lot, my daughter asked if I heard differently.

In the faraway distance I heard the roar of a car I would have missed before, my shoes squeaked as they had not before, and I distinctly heard the rustling of leaves as the wind squeezed its way through the branches on a nearby tree.

I was very happy and a proud father.

Juan A. Negroni, a former international management executive and Weston resident, is a consultant, bilingual speaker/facilitator, and writer. Email him at juannegroni12@gmail.com.