Every three or four years I come to the audiologist to check out the newest hearing aids. Unfailingly, I have noticed tangible differences – clearer sound, directional microphones that work under a wider array of noisy conditions, and noise reduction that works closer to the ideal I have in mind. However- these changes have become less exponential than they once were. I foresee some practical improvements- but I have began to wonder how technology and the algorithms within the hearing aid processors can really improve my speech understanding and interpretation of other sounds like instruments or birds. My best audiologists have wondered about the same issue out loud. Certainly they can design hearing aids that process faster or block out exactly the noise I want. But these changes aren’t making it so that I can hear speech like a “hearing” person or provide some miracle hearing ability that allows me to hear as well as a bat.
I’m not foreseeing any “cure” for my hearing loss; I’m not looking for one either. In fact, I have never considered my hearing level to be a “loss” – mainly because I was born with the level of hearing I have (minus the loud rock concerts and music that have taken its toll). To lose something you have to have had it before. The areas of my brain that would have taken on sound processing have gone on to do the other work available to it like sight, smell, and touch. That’s fine by me.
I’m glad to have taken on the English language and hearing from day one. It’s certainly more trying for me listen to people in large groups of people or understand those with accents. Through a combination of leap-reading and cognitive extrapolation I can usually understand things just fine. Sometimes I miss a really key part of a conversation and I’m left playing catch up to figure out what underlying statement is being answered to. I have adapted well – but I can see that on some days I come home exhausted- just from listening so damn hard.
If the technology of hearing aids can’t improve this situation much further should I look towards something else? It’s a real possibility that in the not so close future the medical establishment will figure out a way to re-grow the nerves in my cochlea. Even if this were possible the ability of the areas in my brain dedicated to speech understanding to pick up these new sounds and interpret them could be dubious. Especially if I am much older by then. I would still like to see active research in this area because it’s worth a try. I would argue the same about Cochlear Implants. The brain still needs to learn to take on sounds that it hasn’t deal with before and that’s no easy task.
What are my other options? I think American Sign Language would open up another avenue of expression- that one day, with a certain level of competence, could be less taxing than listening to speech. I enjoy learning other languages anyhow. They offer a different way of communicating and being- speaking and listening in three-dimensional space. Whenever someone has spoken to while also using sign language I can feel a sense of being relaxed- I forsee that it would be easier for me to interpret language visually than by listening. I feel as a hearing impaired person that I am now innately biased toward visual cognition. Since I didn’t start learning from day one I would always have a “foreign accent”- but this doesn’t matter to me. I can’t say for sure, because I don’t now ASL, but I have a feeling that ASL would open up another avenue for me to communicate- in a way that doesn’t leave me dog tired from trying to piece together what I didn’t hear with what I did. Instead- I can have the possibility of being able to “hear” everything being expressed unless I turned away. This would be a less taxing deal for me- but will require commitment to really learn ASL (and learning a non native language is no easy feat for anyone).