Small Talk with a Stylist

During the summer, while spending some time in England, I had a really great experience at a hair salon. Although I was very happy with my new style, this wasn’t the reason for the experience being great. It was great because I had a conversation with my stylist. This maybe doesn’t sound like anything noteworthy, but for someone with a hearing loss, to be able to converse in a hair salon is actually something pretty fantastic.

There is so much background noise in a hair salon. There are the hairdryers, and the music that is often played loudly to be heard over the sound of the dryers. There must be the noise of water running out of the taps from the sinks where people have their hair washed, but this gets lost amongst the other sounds. There is the noise of people talking in raised voices attempting to converse; in a battle of audio strength with the other sounds of the salon. There are generally no or few soft furnishings in hair salons – I guess it wouldn’t be very practical to have thick curtains and carpets, due to all the stray hair. With an absence of soft furnishings, there is nothing to absorb the sound, and so it spends it’s time bumping into the mirrors, bouncing off the windows and porcelain sinks; continuously combining with the additional noises being produced every second.

It almost seems like it is part of a hairdresser’s job to make small talk with their customers. A hairdresser may get to know their client’s holiday plans; where they work; where they live; if they are in a relationship and if so for how long; and whether they have kids. The salon chair is often akin to the therapists couch; inspiring people to speak about their personal lives. Since my hearing loss, I have struggled with the whole hair-cutting experience due to the amount of noise in hair salons and the conversation difficulties. I was feeling a little nervous before going to this appointment. I had waited until I was in England visiting my sister to get my hair cut; at least this way I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to speak Spanish as well as not being able to hear properly. The appointment was at my regular hair salon, though I hadn’t met the stylist before. As usual the stylist and I had a quick conversation about the type of cut I would like, and then just before the stylist left to ask a colleague to wash my hair, I quickly added (whilst cupping my left ear with my left hand), “Oh, by the way, I’m deaf in this ear.” Lauren, the stylist smiled and assured me that this was fine.

After having my hair washed, I was back again sitting in the chair facing my reflection in the mirror. During the couple of weeks prior to this appointment, I had been trying to develop my lip-reading skills naturally by watching lips during conversations, and had had some success in doing this, especially in bars and restaurants. I was keen to continue practising my new superpower-in-progress.

Even the best lip-readers are only able to understand around 30% of what is actually said by solely relying on lip-reading; the rest is educated guesswork, gathered from context.  In fact ventriloquists are able to produce a voice with little or no movement of the lips, since most sounds are produced inside the mouth where you can’t see them. And so, there is a limit to how accurate even the most skilled of lip-readers could ever be, because most sounds aren’t produced with the lips. Nevertheless, watching a speaker’s lip movements, facial expressions and gestures during a conversation can be very beneficial in aiding verbal communication.

I watched Lauren’s lips in the mirror as she spoke, and in using the shapes her lips were making along with the sounds and words I could hear, I was able to follow most of what she was saying. After telling me about her work schedule for the week, she asked me what I did for work. I told her that I teach in Madrid. She told me she had never been there, though she had once been to Barcelona and that she had loved it. She commented on her holiday saying, “You know Pans, Pans and Co’?” (This is a sandwich franchise in Spain) “Why don’t they have them here? It’s like, they have Subway here, but Pans and Co is way better. The bread is amazing! Oh, I just want a Pans!” I smiled at this remark, and the conversation continued in a light-hearted dance of words.

I briefly noted that whilst watching the movement of Lauren’s lips in the mirror, it at least meant that I wasn’t spending the time awkwardly looking at my reflection. She must have noticed my stare, and asked me, “So do you lip-read then?” My secret was out. She wanted to talk about it. Great – I was happy to discuss my new project. I told her that I was trying to learn how to read lips. Lauren then asked whether I had always been deaf in my left ear. She seemed really interested – not just the general hairdresser level of interest – she actually seemed curious about my hearing loss. I told her my story in brief. She then surprised me by telling me her story. She recounted how she had caught glandular fever multiple times when she was a child, and this had resulted in her losing the hearing in one of her ears. She told me that she had found it really difficult especially since the doctors weren’t able to tell her whether her hearing would return. Luckily it did return within 3 months. She explained how during her time with hearing loss, she used to have the sensation of being underwater; the sound and pressure of water filling and whooshing past her ears. I told her that I also have this feeling.  I described how I always think sounds are coming from my right side, and she finished my sentence by saying, “Because that’s the ear you are hearing everything through.” The conversation moved to some more general discussion about hair thickness after that. But for that brief moment, it had felt so great to have shared a few words with someone who had an understanding of my hearing loss.

After this small exchange of experiences, Lauren switched off the hairdryer every time she wanted to tell me something of importance. She also spent most of the time with her body turned so that I could look at her face-on in the mirror, and follow her lips and her words. I felt such a sense of accomplishment to have been able to understand so much more of the conversation than I had on previous trips to the hair salon, following my hearing loss. Of course I didn’t understand everything that was said, but I doubt many people do. I left the salon with a new hairstyle and some newly found confidence in my developing superpower.

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Another consultation with another specialist – Part 1: Distractions

The first thing he said to me was that I would never get my hearing back. There was no greeting. In fact he didn’t even lift up his head to look at me, as he spoke these opening words.

I was in the hospital again for a consultation with another specialist. My usual Ears Nose and Throat doctor (ENT) had gone to study in England, and so I was again preparing myself to tell my story to a stranger.

Prior to meeting this new specialist, I had carried out some hearing tests. The first test, as always, was a pure tone test, which tests the ability to hear a number of different tones (beeps), using a pair of soundproof headphones. Next was the usual bone conduction test which measures the ability to hear tones, by placing a small bone conductor behind the ear. Normally, these are the two tests I undertake before speaking to a specialist. This time however, I had been asked to carry out an additional assessment: a speech recognition test. This test is similar to the pure tone one, but instead of listening to different tones, the patient listens to words spoken at different volumes, which they are then asked to repeat. The speech reception threshold shows how well the individual hears and understands ordinary conversation. I had carried out this test before, when I had consulted with the specialist in London. That test had been conducted in English; this time however, I would be doing it in Spanish. When I completed the test in my mother tongue, I found that even if I couldn’t clearly hear the whole word, I could guess what the word was; based on the associated tones I could hear, and my knowledge of the English language. This time I was obviously at a disadvantage. I am not fluent in Spanish, and this felt more like a language test than a hearing one. The audiologist assured me that the words would only be two syllables and would be very basic.

Well, the test started off OK, with me repeating a few simple words being played into my good ear. Then things got more difficult. I found I was concentrating so hard on listening to the two syllables of each word that I either ended up missing the start of the word or the end of it. And, as asking the audiologist to replay the word wasn’t an option, I ended up just saying the one syllable that I knew I had heard. This carried on with me grimacing at every non-word I was saying. Then the audiologist turned up the volume and I was in immediate pain. I looked through the glass screen at her and pulled a distressed face. She spoke into her microphone and asked if it was too loud. I told her it was, and she said she would turn the volume down. She assured me she had done this, yet I continued in pain, with the distressed look on my face, as she continued to play more words at me. I was relieved when the test was over, and when she came into the booth where I was sitting to change the headphones over, in order to test my deaf ear. I then sat patiently whilst the test was carried out on my deaf ear; aware that the audiologist was on the other side of the screen, busy playing Spanish words into my deaf ear, yet unable to hear them. Some minutes went by, and then she played the words really loud into my deaf ear. I was again in discomfort, yet she didn’t turn down the volume. The noise was distorted, yet I was able to attempt to vocalize some of the sounds. Then the test was over, and I was asked to wait outside.

Over 3 hours later I was called in to a consultation room to speak to the new specialist. The head-teacher of the school I work in had kindly suggested my Spanish friend accompany me for this consultation, to help with translation. I had been told that this new specialist would be giving me some therapy to help me cope with my sensitivity to sound. I had also been told that this new specialist didn’t speak any English. I knew I had an adequate level of Spanish to be able to understand the main points of discussion. I would however, find it difficult to describe any sensations associated to different volume levels or types of sound.

Well, thank goodness my Spanish speaking friend was with me. The specialist mumbled his way through the entire consultation. He barely even moved his lips as he spoke! As someone with a hearing loss, it is very difficult for me to understand someone if they do not speak clearly. Even my hearing friend who speaks Spanish, had to move closer to hear what he was saying, and also asked him to repeat himself on more than one occasion. As someone with hearing loss I also find it difficult to hear speech if there is any background noise. And, a few minutes into the appointment, the distractions commenced.

We were sitting in a small square consultation room, and at the far end of the room was an open doorway which led to a corridor where staff were busily chatting and walking from room to room. In addition to the almost inaudible muffled tones being uttered by the specialist, the added distraction of the staff in the corridor further hindered my ability to follow what the specialist was saying. Then two people entered the small consultation room. One of people was a young-looking guy wearing a white lab coat. He proceeded to the sink on the right-hand side of the room. He turned the tap on, and started to do something which sounded like it involved a scrubbing brush... Chat chat chat, clomp clomp clomp, swoosh swoosh swoosh, brush brush brush… mumble mumble mumble…The brushing and the sound of water flowing rapidly into the sink, mixed together with the corridor noise, forcing the specialist’s mumbling to grow more distant. The other person who had entered the room was a female nurse, who proceeded to the left-hand side of the desk where we were sitting. She started flicking through a stack of patient’s files; pulling them out of slots of a metal trolley, and flicking some more… chat chat chat, clomp clomp clomp, swoosh swoosh swoosh, brush brush bush, flick flick flick… mumble mumble mumble… the specialist’s indistinct tones were drowning in background noise. At one point he even had a piece of paper covering his mouth, which meant that I wasn’t even able to observe any slight movement of his lips to gain some clue as to what he was saying. What if I was a lip-reader?! I imagined a page from a puzzle book; the kind where there is a line drawing where you have to circle what’s wrong with the picture.  Well, if the aim of the puzzle was to highlight the aspects of this scenario that were making it a difficult environment for communication for someone with hearing loss, I’d be circling almost everything on the page.

I watched as the specialist quickly scanned the A4 booklet of notes that had been written about me, by his predecessors. I took a breath and focused on staying patient and prepared myself for the usual inquiries that would force me to relive the difficulties the past year had brought. Predictably I was soon asked the standard questions. When did it happen? Was it sudden? Have you tried a hearing aid? He told me that my right ear was functioning well. I assume he must have discounted the results of my speech recognition test, to come to this conclusion. He told me that the most important thing was to look after my right, only-functioning ear. He advised me on my diet. Since losing my hearing I have had various doctors and specialists suggest many things that I should not be eating or doing, in order to protect my remaining hearing. This time the list included, amongst many other things; no alcohol and no caffeine. I was told to avoid using certain types of hair dye, gold, and numerous types of antibiotics. There were countless other things on the list that could prove toxic to my ear, of which I had no idea what they were. I was to avoid loud music and high noise levels. My friend explained how I work in a school. The specialist said that a school environment was OK…I often think that people don’t realize how loud a classroom, or an infant school playground can be!

The specialist had a blunt manner. He seemed to be highly knowledgeable in issues regarding the ear; having all the textbook-theory knowledge, yet none of the practice. There was no evidence of him showing any understanding of how sudden hearing loss can affect someone’s ability to understand speech, not to mention their self-confidence or other associated emotional factors. He even managed to upset me; when he asked me how long I’d been living in Spain, and he commented how my Spanish should be better after such an amount of time. Hmm, maybe after obviously being a consultant for such a long time, he should have more on an understanding how to address patients with hearing loss?!…Nevertheless, as the consultation continued, my friend and I remained collected. We asked our questions, and finally we started to form a new plan of action…