The driving deaf


For obvious reasons, I can’t lip read if I’m driving. I can lip read moderately well from the front passenger seat, if I peer at the side of the driver’s face. But this only works if the road noise isn’t too loud (so it doesn’t mask my remaining hearing) and I can bear to take my eyes off the road (I’m a terrible back seat driver, especially from the front passenger seat). So it’s a bit of a problem.
It was hard even when my hearing is a lot better than it is now. Before I retired one colleague once told me that her mother had made her promise not to travel with me again, after hearing that I was turning my head to look at her when I was driving. I don’t blame her (and I promise I don’t do it now). Another time I was giving a different colleague a lift back to the office, through a part of Bradford I didn’t know very well. Majid (a lovely, quietly spoken young man) offered to direct me and we set off. All went well for a while until there was something I couldn’t decipher. “Hang on, Majid” I said. “I didn’t catch that – wait until we get to the lights and I can stop”. Luckily the lights were on red and I turned to look at him. “Sorry, what did you say?” “You’ve gone the wrong way” he said. We both saw the funny side, as did the rest of the office when we eventually got back there.
These days, if I am giving someone a lift, I tell them very firmly that I can’t talk when I’m driving – but it doesn’t make for very convivial journeys. It also means that, if my husband and I are going somewhere together, he always ends up doing all the driving, which doesn’t seem fair.
Some months ago, in an attempt to find a solution to this, I borrowed a special microphone that was loaned to me by a friend with hearing loss. It is another of the many gadgets aimed at helping deaf people and works by feeding sound directly from a hand held microphone into your hearing aids’ loop setting. My friend had used it successfully when her children were small, so that they could talk to their mum, using the microphone, from the back seat. But it didn’t work for me.
The initial problem was that the only loop setting installed on my hearing aids was the type where sound other than the direct feed (via the loop) is cut out. That is exactly what you need for listening to a speaker in a public meeting, but it wasn’t suitable for driving. I need to hear the other road noise, or how will I know that an ambulance is fast approaching with its sirens going? So, off to the audiology department to have an additional loop setting activated, which doesn’t cut out general sound. So far so good, thanks to the very helpful staff at my local hospital. However, I then found I was getting terrible interference from the car. I could have lived with the strange sound whenever I pressed the brake pedal, but the incredibly loud whine when I turned on the car headlights was a killer. Why it didn’t affect my friend’s hearing aids but did mine remains a mystery.
But there is other technology out there so I decided to try something else. People had recommended a Roger pen (strange name….I know). It is described as an all-inclusive wireless microphone, offering better speech understanding in noise and over distance. Sounded good. The drawback is the price, which at £550 made me take a sharp intake of breath and shelve the idea. Given how poor my hearing is now, I also doubted I would get much benefit. But as my husband pointed out, it was available on a 28 day sale or return basis from Action on Hearing Loss, so surely I should at least give it a try? Given that he suffers at least as much from my deafness as I do I eventually decided he was right. The credit card came out and a large box duly arrived. There was a bit of a hiccup because not all the necessary parts for the charger had been included but a week later we were all set for the test run.
What I had bought was the “pen”, a microphone designed to look like a pen, which can be pointed at someone like a hand held microphone, placed on a table to pick up sound from people seated round it, or hung on a lanyard round someone’s neck (the person you want to hear). Then there is a receiver. I bought the simplest variety, the MyLink. It hangs round my neck, like a pendant, and feeds sound from the microphone directly into my hearing aids, via the loop setting.
We switched on, Nigel took the pen into the living room and I stayed in the kitchen shouting out “OK, say something”. “I’m in the living room with Izzy”, he said, and I heard it. Not perfectly (the brain had to do a bit of work) but he said words and I correctly deciphered them. This is nothing short of miraculous, for someone who is normally almost completely reliant on lip reading. “I’m looking at the log basket”, he said. I got it. I couldn’t decipher the next one – it was “oh ye of little faith” – but he had a point.
So we tried it in the car, with Nigel driving, on a long journey from Yorkshire to Suffolk. I said at the start of this post that I can lip read a car driver moderately well from the front passenger seat, and that’s true. However, in real life the effort to communicate on a long journey becomes too much after a while, for both of us. It’s just too tiring.
But with the Roger pen helping my hearing AND lip reading at the same time we did just fine. We could talk (and understand each other). There was very mild interference from the car (I heard a quiet electronic noise when he had his foot on the brake pedal) but nothing that wasn’t easy to ignore. After much fiddling about with the loop settings on my hearing aids (eventually I left it on the one that cuts out background noise) and the volume settings on the receiver I arrived at a point where I could feel myself relaxing. Instead of restricting conversation to shouted essentials I could, well, talk to my husband. Not as easily as if we were sat opposite each other in the house but without too much difficulty. To someone with good hearing this probably sounds deeply unexciting but for me, believe me, it is revolutionary.
So it was thumbs up for the Roger pen after the first test. Other test results (“in the restaurant”, “me driving”) will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile, do you have any Roger pen experiences?? I’d love to hear about them.

Image copyright: ksym / 123RF Stock Photo



Just casual chat

7778302_sThe other week my car needed to be serviced and I had booked an appointment at the local garage.  The young man at the service desk was taking the details.  Trying not to miss something important I stopped him at one point and said “sorry, I missed that – I’m deaf and I lip read – could you say it again?”  “Gosh” he said “lip reading……is that difficult?”  Yes it is, I replied.  “Why did you learn?” he asks.  Well, because my hearing is really very poor these days, I explain, so lip reading is the only way I can make sense of speech.  “When did you lose your hearing?” he asks.  I explain (long slow process over 40 years).

Anyway, I go on, what did you say?  “Oh”, he said, “I just asked if you were doing anything special at the weekend.”

All that fuss…..

Sometimes I envy hearing people their ability to zone out non-essential chit chat secure in the knowledge that that’s what it is.  A quick “no, nothing special… about you?” would have taken infinitesimally less effort.  (On the other hand, it was lovely that he was interested in lip reading).

Something else I envy about hearing people is their ability to hear when someone isn’t looking at them.  How do they do that??  I can’t even imagine any more what it would be like.

So for example my husband, Nigel, and I might be chatting in the kitchen whilst doing our respective chores.  It sounds a simple enough thing, but it’s challenging.  If Nigel is doing the washing up (at the sink, with his back to me) he will be twisting his head so I can see his face.  I might be dancing around to put myself in the best position for lip reading.  I suppose we could wait until we are facing each other but that’s not always possible if you are just flipping a few comments back and forth whilst doing the dishes.  Anyway – I am loathe to give up spontaneity completely.  Marriage is about the casual chat as well as the deeper stuff.

But here’s the point.  If I’m speaking (say telling him something that happened to me earlier in the day) and he heads off into the back kitchen to put the washing in the drier……I can’t carry on talking.  How weird is that?  I just peter out.  Rationally I know that he can hear me perfectly well, and will come back in the room when he needs to say something.  But, because I can’t hear people without seeing their face something very deep in my psyche seems to have stopped me believing that HE can.  It’s very strange.

“Go on”, he says “I can still hear you”.  But I just can’t do it.

Mind you, sometimes in the past he has reappeared saying “sorry, I missed that, the spin cycle started”.

Image Copyright: goodshotalan / 123RF Stock Photo

Excellent lip reading – wrong answer


In my last post I talked about a very good lip reading class that I used to go to.  My friend Jill recently reminded me about a funny lip reading mistake that happened one week, before I joined the group.

Part of each class would be devoted to trying understand some speech by relying entirely on lip reading.  The tutor, Susan, would “speak” the words normally, but without making any sound at all.

This time, the exercise was about things that Yorkshire is famous for.  Susan read out a list…….Yorkshire pudding, York Minster, David Hockney, Wensleydale cheese and then………but what was that word????  Half the group thought the word looked like marzipan but why on earth would Yorkshire be famous for marzipan???  Puzzled faces…..

Then Susan remembered her accent, and tried again.  “Brass bands” everyone shouted.  Of course.

What on earth was going on here?  First point – some consonants look exactly the same on the lips.  It is one of the reasons why lip reading is so difficult and so based on context.  (If you tell me what the topic of conversation is I’m much more likely to understand the words you are saying because the options to choose from are reduced). M, B and P all look the same on the lips when you sound them muh, buh and puh.  Try it in front of a mirror.  The word could have begun with any of them.

But the second and most important point was that Susan was (initially, until she remembered she was speaking to a group of northerners) pronouncing “brass” in the southern English way, as “brarse”.  This changes the shape of the vowel sound on the lips.  Again – try it.  Look in a mirror and say a long “ah” then a short “a” – they look quite different.  So “brass” could have begun with M, P or B and then was followed by an “ah” sound.  Then “bands” could have begun with an M, P or B and was followed by a short “a” sound.  Marzipan is completely logical.

M – ah – S – P – a – N.

Sometimes you just can’t tell the difference between one word and another.  Or, as Susan used to say – “excellent lip reading, wrong answer”.

It is also why I will sometimes mutter to my husband if we meet someone for the first time and I am struggling – “tell me what her accent is”-  because it really does help to know.

Quite a lot of lip reading is guesswork.  Sometimes you get it right.  Sometimes you don’t.  “Would you like to come and see?” looks much the same on the lips (and sounds much the same to me) as “would you like a cup of tea?” but it can be bemusing for my friends when they think they’ve invited me to view their vegetable patch and I say “oh, yes please, milk but no sugar”.

People with good hearing sometimes assume that lip reading is possible in situations when it isn’t.  I once had two people tell me at the end of a group holiday that they had been avoiding me ever since I told them I needed to lip read – because they thought I could “read” everything they were saying – even from far away.  They didn’t say what they had been so worried I would understand but they should have been reassured – I can’t do that.

Sometimes the media consult “lip reading experts” if they want to know what some celebrity has whispered to another that has been missed by the microphones.  The best example of this that I can remember was when Prince William married Kate.  What had he said to her on the balcony before “the kiss”?  What had the Queen said?  You can still find all this stuff on the internet, but the funny thing is that all the “experts” came up with something different – which is not at all surprising to us deaf people.  It’s hard.

Actually, at the time of the Royal Wedding I confess I did dabble in a little attempted spying.  There was a point when William was waiting at the altar for the bridal party to arrive and Harry, the best man, turned to him and said something.  It was on YouTube and I watched it several times.  I thought he said “wait ‘til you see the dog”, but, as there were no corgis amongst the bridesmaids, had to write it off as another lip reading failure.


Now I hear you, now I don’t

A couple of years ago I went to an excellent lip reading class.  There is nothing quite like spending an hour or two every couple of weeks with a group of people who know EXACTLY what you mean about hearing loss to restore your sanity.  As well as teaching lip reading the tutor, Susan, would lead various other discussions on hearing loss-related topics.  One week we did an exercise that imagined going on a country walk and identifying all the things that affected our ability to understand the people we were walking with.

So imagine.….you are walking side by side along a wide track through a grassy field and chatting easily to someone – having a lovely time.  Then…whoops….the path narrows and you have to walk in single file – lip reading over for a while.  After a while, hurrah, back on the grassy track – no problems.  Conversation resumes.  A few hundred yards further on you have to pick your way carefully through a very muddy and churned up field, watching carefully where you put your feet.  Uh-oh – no lip reading here.

The exercise went on, with the group getting excitedly carried away recalling all the things that hinder us chatting on a country walk – a very loud waterfall, getting near a busy road with a lot of traffic noise, walking on a crunchy gravel path, a strong wind gets up….. (you wouldn’t believe the noise that wind makes rushing over hearing aids – putting your hood up helps but then that hinders turning your head round to see someone’s face, and the hood can make your hearing aids whistle….oh well….).  We had a lovely time sympathising with each other and laughing, but also remembering how difficult it must be for someone with good hearing to understand what on earth is going on with us – from chatty to silent to back again in moments for little apparent (to them) reason.

And that’s just on a country walk.  We then got onto kitchens (noisy hard surfaces, kettles, dishwashers, extractor fans…….) as opposed to carpeted living rooms (much better for hearing in) and other scenarios too many to list.

No wonder there’s a catch phrase “she can hear when she wants to”.  That’s what it must look like.  But that’s not really what is going on.


Deafinitely not funny

I’ve been trying to find funny cartoons about deafness, and it has been surprisingly difficult.

If you look on the net you can find cartoons, but a substantial proportion feature someone shouting at a deaf person.  Shouting at someone with hearing loss is not a great thing to do.  Firstly because it feels just as aggressive to the recipient as if you were shouting in anger.  Secondly, and more importantly, because it makes it far harder to lip read what someone is saying, because shouting distorts the natural lip shapes.  In any case, with modern hearing aids volume is rarely the problem.

Thankfully, in real life people don’t shout at me.  In fact, the loveliness of people I meet casually and try to communicate with never ceases to amaze me.  I say something like “I’m deaf.  I can only understand speech if I can see your face, so that I can lip read” and people respond “OK, fine”.  They turn to look at me and they largely remember to keep looking at me.  If they forget (understandably, most people don’t need their eyes to hear) and turn away I might say “Sorry, I didn’t catch that”. They will say “Oh, I forgot, sorry” and turn their head to face me again.  They never start bellowing.

People don’t even start shouting if I still have trouble understanding.  This happens because lip reading is difficult and usually at least partly based on guesswork.  (I feel another post coming on but let’s leave that one for the moment).  The window cleaner looked bemused when it took me four goes to get “have you paid for last time?” but he didn’t raise his voice.  Nor did the supermarket checkout operator when it took me a similar number of attempts to understand “have you had a good day so far?”  (Answer…..not really).  Believe me, I can understand why people would want to have a good shout in these circumstances, which makes it all the more creditable that people keep their cool and persist so cheerfully.

It’s not always plain sailing.  One day I said my little spiel to a plumber come to mend a radiator leak and he replied, in broad Lancashire, “tha’ll have trouble wi’ me then lass, ah’ve got toffee in’t mouth”.  But we managed.






Decisions Decisions

Copyright: Cole123RF / 123RF Stock Photo

When I first had hearing aids I grew my very short hair slightly longer to hide them.  It was a vanity thing.  When people said “goodness, I didn’t know you had hearing problems – you could never tell” I was very pleased.  This isn’t an approach everyone with a hearing loss shares.  The letters page of the magazine produced by Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID) sometimes reverberates with people getting very cross about manufacturers who advertise hearing aids as “invisible… will know you are wearing them”.  They feel that we should be more upfront about our deafness, and stop it being quite so much a hidden disability.  I can see their point, but admit that I was quite happy to hide for as long as I could.

Things have changed now that my hearing is much worse.  I’ve got very short hair again and everyone can see my hearing aids.  That’s a good thing now, because people I meet casually might get a first prompt that all is not well (that is, before I completely misunderstand what they say and veer off on some strange conversational tangent).  I also like it that other people with hearing loss sometimes come up to me and strike up a conversation, starting it, “I see you have hearing aids……”

So my view is that we all reach individual decisions about what works for us on this, and that might change over time.  We shouldn’t criticise others for their choices.

Writing about those decisions reminded me of the tiny deafness-related decisions I make, many times, every day.  Sometimes, as you all know, people with hearing problems pretend they have heard something when they haven’t.  We shouldn’t do it, because it is all too easy to make a disastrous mistake and nod and smile when the right response would be to say *oh how terrible, I’m so sorry”.  But there are times when my ability to say yet again, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that, could you repeat it for me” just fails me – I’ve said it so many times that day. I decide to zone out for a while.

There’s also the aspect of trying not to completely dominate other peoples’ conversations.  When I am with more than a couple of other people there are inevitably conversations going on between the others that are not particularly directed at me.  A person without hearing loss would be able to hear all of it and know when to chip in, but you would be driven mad if I interrupted every time anyone said something that I didn’t catch. So I decide when to butt in and when not to.

There is also the issue of deciding how much to explain to people you don’t really “meet” but who you exchange some pleasantries with.  An example of that scenario is with an artist who, last summer, was painting a scene on a local canal towpath where I often walk our dog.  As I passed him sat at his easel I was mainly focussing on how to stop a friendly but sometimes shall-we-say-over-exuberant black Labrador causing oil paint mayhem but I would call out “Good Morning” and walk on by.  One day I was fairly certain I could hear the man saying something as the dog and I charged past.  So I turned and said “I’m sorry, did you say something?  I’m deaf and didn’t catch it”.  “Ahhh” he said “that explains it…I’ve been trying to talk to you the past two or three times I’ve seen you but you just ignore me”.  So we had a chat.  Indeed the next time I saw him he had researched how to say “Good morning Vera” in sign language (which was a shame because, living a life surrounded by people who can hear, I’ve never learnt it).  He and I became firm friends, until his painting was finished and he moved on to some other place.  It was an excellent example of how people can assume you are being rude, or standoffish, by ignoring them.  On the other hand, it’s not really feasible to tell your life story to everyone you pass on a walk.

So many decisions.  I was somewhat horrified to read recently the theory that we all have our daily quota of decision making ability, and once that’s gone decisions get far harder.  If it’s true I’m destined for a life of dithering, as all my decision making quota gets used up on variants of the above.


Forgotten Shopping


Because there are so many things I can’t hear I’m semi-constantly aware that my life is not quite like most other people’s. The big example of course is speech. I’m aware of people around me speaking all the time but I know that I can only understand what they are saying if I tune in, look at the speaker and concentrate.

I know that, and I’m used to it. Life goes on. But sometimes things happen to remind you of things you are missing that you’d forgotten all about. An example happened in the Post Office in the other week. To set the scene, in our household my husband does a weekly online grocery shop but I do the shopping, in our local town, for things I want to see before I buy them (things like meat, fish and fresh veg). I enjoy going round the shops and my husband doesn’t so it’s a very good division of labour. Also, I can do it and scarcely feel deaf at all. Shopping is quite easy for a lip-reader, I find, because the script is so limited. At the supermarket checkout the operator might say “would you like help with your packing?” or “do you need any bags?” or “do you have a club card?” I’m expecting all of those and just have to lip read (or guess) correctly which one they have said and bob’s your uncle. In a confident mood I might even start a short chat about the weather – again, you know where the conversation is going so it’s easy to keep up. In the butcher if you state what you want clearly enough – “lean lamb for a casserole please, about a kilo” – not much else needs to be said until they say the price, and that’s fine because it shows on the till in front of you. No lip reading needed. Perhaps another “would you like a bag?” and you’re done. Success. “Thanks a lot….bye” and you’re off.

My favourite butcher

But on this day my husband was with me for some reason when I needed to go to the Post Office for some stamps. I said what I wanted, put my letters on the scales, grimaced at the fact that they were slightly heavier than ideal and would cost more than the standard rate….all going well. Now at this point you need to know that it is one of my husband’s most endearing characteristics that he chats easily to complete strangers of all types and on all occasions. If we are out fell walking he doesn’t just say hello or good morning to passing walkers, as most people would. He stops, and, given the slightest encouragement, he’s off. Where we are going, where they are going, by what route, where we live, where they live…..sometimes things progress for so long he gets on to describing our dog’s various medical conditions (she sometimes has to wear a boot on a back paw, so people ask)……..a few jokes added in and we go our separate ways. “What a friendly chap” they think. “His wife was a bit uncommunicative”.

So, back to the post office. I’m being served quite swimmingly and my husband makes some quick quip to the person serving me, which I missed of course. She replies and they start laughing. Then the other person serving (it’s a counter in a corner shop – they aren’t behind screens) says something else, then someone else in the queue joins in and they are all laughing. Funny quips pinging backwards and forwards. It was lovely, but goodness knows what it was about. Experience tells that asking for a lip readable running commentary on a quick joke is the road to madness, it just doesn’t translate.

So, a forgotten thing. How other people shop…….