Personal story aims to improve 'connections' between hard of hearing and the hearing world

November 01, 1999

CHAPEL HILL -- Sociologist Barbara Stenross' understanding of what it means to be hard of hearing in a hearing world has come full circle: She watched her own father, who lost his hearing during World War II, retreat into a silence that she only later recognized as his way of dealing with his hearing loss.

Her family experiences led her to do fieldwork with a self-help group of hard-of-hearing adults trying to communicate with others who are not always sensitive to their circumstances. More recently, she learned that she has a mild hearing loss and will eventually need to wear a hearing aid.

Those experiences provide the perspective for her new book, "Missed Connections: Hard of Hearing in a Hearing World" (1999, Temple University Press).

"One of the most difficult things for people who are hard of hearing to do is to acknowledge their hearing loss and let people know what help is needed," she says. "We can't just expect people to know how to communicate with us. The tendency is to let it go if you don't hear, but if we keep letting things go, we'll miss out on conversations, social connections that are really at the heart of relationships."

Stenross, who taught sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 19 years before accepting an administrative position earlier this year, found that she has a high frequency hearing loss - the most typical type of hearing loss. "That means I miss higher pitched consonants like P's and S's and that numbers are difficult for me over the phone. That's why I continue to attend meetings of the self-help group for hard-of-hearing people," she says.

"Missed Connections" comes at a time when more attention is being directed toward hearing loss because of high profile hearing-aid wearers like President Clinton and former Miss America Heather Whitestone. "Traditionally, there has been more attention in scholarly literature to the sign language community and members of the deaf culture than to the much larger number of people with varying degrees of hearing loss - from mild to severe or profound," says Stenross, assistant dean of academic advising programs in UNC-CH's General College and College of Arts and Sciences.

She conducted interviews for the book to look at what meaning people give to events in their lives and how they work that out with others. Her goal was to learn something useful for her own family situation and for others. What she's learned is that the "missed connections" in life are, by necessity, the province of both the hearing and the hard of hearing.

"My father didn't get a hearing aid until he was in his '70s, so there were a number of years when he was a quiet man," she says. "Only when connecting more with others did I realize that some of the silence I experienced from him had been the difficulty of communicating and his unwillingness to be placed in an embarrassing situation."

After her mother's death, her father wanted her to help him get his hearing aid fixed. "I realized then how much my mother had served as his ears to the world and how important the hearing aid was for him to stay in communication with others," Stenross says.

She also learned through fieldwork more about hearing aids. "One thing that's very difficult for hearing people to understand is that a hearing aid doesn't fix hearing in the way glasses can bring 20/20 vision. It's still difficult to hear in the presence of background noise. Often, hard-of-hearing people try to make interactions one-on-one because group meetings and restaurant meals are difficult occasions," she says.

Stenross advises people who are hard of hearing to find an audiologist with whom he or she can feel comfortable. She reminds the hearing public that speaking too loudly or shouting to be better understood creates a distortion of words and sounds -- not greater understanding.

"It's more important to speak slowly and more distinctly to a partner or loved one who is hard of hearing," she says. "If one person has hearing loss and the partner knows it and raises his or her voice with anger, the relationship might feel like it's frustrating and anger-filled. If the loudness is not understood, it can create problems in family situations."

Also important on both sides is good listening, Stenross says. "Listening is an art - and a practice. It requires close attention. Often hard-of-hearing people work hard at listening - so hard that another aspect of hearing loss is exhaustion, along with the desire to withdraw and be quiet and not have to worry about listening."

She is positive about her own future. "I've often wondered to myself had I not been sensitized to the issue of hearing loss, would I have noted on my 50th year physical exam that maybe my hearing was not what it might be? I don't need a hearing aid yet, but I'm hoping not to do what my father did - wait until I've lost some relationships as well."
Note: Stenross can be reached at 919-966-5116. Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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