Pardon? What was that? Come again? I'm sorry, you'll have to speak more clearly

4th November 2011 at 00:00
Just because you can't hear a word that is said to you, doesn't mean you are going deaf .

A couple of weeks ago, I took the first steps to becoming a cyborg. The story starts a few years ago, when (Hypothesis A) the world started to mumble. Everything was fine if I was talking to only one person in a quiet room, but switch on a fan, have some background chit-chat going on or play some music and, inexplicably, those I conversed with chose to speak as if they had scarves over their mouths. Rather harshly, they appeared to think it was me who couldn't hear properly, rather than they who were choosing not to enunciate clearly. They failed to accept that I was a young man and thus could not possibly be suffering from hearing loss. Some of those close to me even became frustrated at my frequent requests that they should repeat what they had just said.

Perhaps the major drawback of being a scientist (apart from folk thinking that you're bound to be a socially dysfunctional bore who can't speak to members of the opposite sex) is that you learn not to ignore the evidence. The evidence did not support Hypothesis A above. If the world had begun to mumble, how come my wife could hear my children clearly from the back of the car when I could not? Had everyone at coffee break agreed to laugh synchronously for no reason, or was I missing jokes? How come Homer Simpson appeared to speak intelligibly but Lisa's words were a hurdy-gurdy of tinkling glass?

Unfortunately, rather than formulate a new hypothesis, I continued to ask family, friends and colleagues to repeat themselves until it became embarrassing to do so. Then, I'd smile and nod, hoping I would catch the main points of a conversation. Finally, after I started giving answers to questions that hadn't been asked, doubtless appearing to go off at bizarre conversational tangents, I went to the doctor. He fixed me up with an appointment at an audiology clinic.

The likeable audiologist played me a variety of sounds, and I had to press a button when I heard one. ("No, sorry, that was a bin lorry reversing outside the hospital, Gregor"). I thought I was wasting her time. I could hear plenty of beeps. Then she showed me a chart. I could pick up low frequencies, but the high ones had gone. That explained Lisa Simpson. Did I want hearing aids? I said that I did. Two.

Had I still been in the classroom, I would have been obliged to sort things out much sooner, though I'd have been vain enough to worry about wearing the aids in front of pupils. Still, old age doesn't come by itself, as I think my mother said.

Gregor Steele hopes his hearing aids have an off switch

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

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