It’s been 8 months since I picked up my first pair of hearing aids from the audiologist’s office. Of course, as with many other men in middle age, my hearing had been on the decline for several years prior to the Big Day. I just suffered silently during those earlier years as my hearing declined — frankly, in the name of vanity (with plenty of denial thrown in). My wife and daughters suffered not so silently: “When are you going to get your ears checked? That’s way overdue!”
It really was a significant day in my life. I can best describe adding hearing aids to my daily personal accessories for the first time as similar to the day at 15 years old when I donned my first pair of prescription eyeglasses. Walking into my high school the next day, I expected every student and teacher in the building to gawk at me. … What a surprise when hardly anyone paid any notice. Even my friends barely joked about my change in appearance. (I wear eyeglasses to this day.)
It started in 1993, several months after my first birthday, with one simple word. Both of my parents were surprised to hear me talk because struggles with ear infections delayed my speech. All it took for me to speak was the daily visit from the neighbors’ cat. Tigger was sitting outside the kitchen door, expecting to be let in for snuggles, cuddles, and food. I took one look at him and exclaimed “cat!” After my first word, however, nobody could have predicted the battle I would fight to maintain my hearing.
Ear problems considered typical for infants transformed into a chronic illness, which disintegrated my eardrums over the course of 10 years. Delays in speech became social delays caused by hearing loss, and frequent absences related to illness. There were plenty of things that upset me about ear infections; not having a lot of friends; ice-cold eardrops that gave me migraines; teachers who did not understand my health problems. Nothing upset me as much, however, as not being able to hear a cat purr. I knew it existed because it vibrated in my fingertips, giving me a “thank-you” massage for stroking the cat’s back. No matter how close I put my ear though, I could never hear the cat’s wordless way of saying “thank you” and “I love you.”
By age 10, I worried that would never happen. Half of my left ear was eroded by ventilation tubes, and only one scrap of my right eardrum was left. I was told, if my health did not change, I would be stone deaf at sixteen. Would I lose my chance to hear the cat’s purr? Would I ever find a way to stop these infections?
With the early days of hearing aid wonder hearing behind me, I sometimes find myself forgetting them. The other day, it happened again. I left home and realised just in time that I didn’t have my ears with me.
I blame my morning shower. I have to wait until my ears are completely dry to put my hearing aids in. By that time I’m up and about and out of my “waking up and getting started” routine. What is the best solution to this? I definitely haven’t found it yet.
It’s been a year since I joined Phonak as Social Media Manager/Strategist. Previously I worked for a young, cool, and fun watch brand that was the perfect fit for social media. When I decided to change companies people asked me: “Why on earth would you leave your current job to work for the hearing aid industry?” My answer could be summed up in one word: engagement. The kind of engagement Brian Solis has so often written about.
To me, it was obvious that the hard-of-hearing community would bring a deeper level of engagement than the “Wow, cool & nice!” comments that appear whenever a “cool” brand shares something on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest. This community would be willing to bond deeper through social channels with the brands manufacturing the devices that truly impact their daily life.
Since my last visit to the Phonak headquarters I keep mulling on the conversation I had with Solange about fitting and pricing strategy. We know hearing aids come in different price ranges, and the benefits they provide to the wearer change as you move up in technology. These variations in price are not isolated to a specific piece of hardware or software, but reflect the overall experience the wearer receives when using them in more complex listening environments. And that, ultimately, is what we pay for, as hearing technology users: a better life experience.
A few weeks ago, I spent two days at the Phonak headquarters in Stäfa, near Zurich. If managing a blog and writing for it can be done remotely, meeting people can’t.
People are sometimes surprised that I value face-to-face exchanges so much when I am such a “digital” person. Well, I do — you get something out of spending an hour in the same room as somebody that is very hard to reproduce at a distance. I sometimes wonder if it has anything to do with my hearing loss: I need to see people, probably because in my 38 years without hearing aids, I’ve relied a lot on non-verbal communication. I don’t like talking on the phone with people I’ve never met or don’t know well (close friends is another story, I can talk on the phone for hours with them). And as for video conferencing… give me good sound quality and high-quality video which doesn’t freeze or lag, and I might start taking it seriously.
For my third visit, Vincent had set up meetings with various people inside the company, as well as a guided visit of the production centre. I could have stayed in there the whole day, actually — the geek/engineer in me just loves big machines and production chains, obviously.
“I don’t hear very well.” This is what I’d been saying since I discovered, age 13, that I didn’t hear very well. “I don’t hear very well.” My hearing was checked, I was given the verdict “yeah, so you have some hearing loss, we’re going to give you hearing aids”, and sent to an audiologist to be fitted. They took some measurements, filled my ears with pink stuff, and next time I went there I left with a rather big pair of skin-coloured inside-the-ear aids.
They felt uncomfortable, I could hear background noise, the world was too loud, and girls at school made fun of me. I wore them two days, maybe three, then put them back in their box, never to be taken out again. I decided that it wasn’t that bad after all to “not hear very well”, and that I would cope.
And I did, for the next 25 years.
In 2012, after a couple of years of “getting there”, I finally decided to get fitted again. My brother had got hearing aids a few years before and what he told me of the process and the changes in his life really encouraged me. (We have similar hearing loss, hereditary.) I shared some of my thoughts on my blog right after getting my hearing aids (“A Week With My Superpower”) and a month or so later (“More About Hearing Aids…”).
Nearly two years later, my hearing aids are part of my life, and I wonder why I waited so long. I still end up saying “I don’t hear very well” every now and again, but now I can add “I’m not wearing my hearing aids just now,” or “Even with hearing aids, I don’t hear as well as you.” The impact is different!
It’s easy to pretend that I am just like everybody else until someone blurts out a subtle, but painful statement.
“But you look so normal!”
Those words were uttered to me in the library after another student lost her temper because I could not hear her whispers. My response to her irritation was to pull out my hearing aid, wave it in her face, and say, “I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing. Could you repeat that?”