Seeing the trees for the leaves

Why you should get a hearing check-up

When it comes to hearing aids, there are significant differences between generations on usage and perception. At 8:30am on the 15th of January 2018, I walked out of a Hearing SA clinic with shiny new hearing aids over my ears and spent a week recording the reactions of those around me, as well as their impact on my daily life.

The first thing I noted: Seagulls sound like flying nightmare monsters, I am prepared to flip a table over the sound of someone tapping their pen on a table, and nothing is more satisfying than the thump of my keyboard as I punch down a key.

Hearing loss is a bizarre thing. We think of it as a problem only found in the elderly and those born completely deaf. We rarely think about gradual hearing loss, or hearing impairment as a more-or-less stable entity. If vision can be a gradient of 20/20 vision to blindness (and we know that someone who wears glasses isn’t inevitably going to go blind) why do we think of hearing impairments as a binary system of ‘good hearing’ or ‘severe deafness’ — which seems to mean Australian Sign-Language (Auslan) dependency.

For starters, there are over one million people in Australia who have some form of hearing loss, mostly associated with aging. Very few of these people would know or use Auslan, however the precise number of signing deaf people in Australia is unknown. In 1991, Hyde and Power found over 15,400 Deaf users of sign language in Australia, while there were another 15,000 hearing users. If these numbers hold true, that’s one percent of the hearing loss community that sign.

I’m personally ‘Hard of Hearing (HoH)’ and mildly, so I can survive without my hearing aids but I certainly won’t thrive. I know a little Auslan, but certainly no more than the basic signs and fingerspelling that many primary schools teach you. I don’t consider myself to be part of the deaf community, but absolutely consider the deaf community to be a cousin that I will argue on behalf of, if needed or requested.

Nineteen to Forty-Four is the most common age period for the onset of hearing loss. University can mark a period of change, so keep an eye out for this one too.

Millennials experience hearing loss to some degree due to a variety of factors; music at unsafe volumes through earbuds, loud concerts and sporting events, clubs and environmental or workplace noise, diabetes, high blood pressure, exposure to ototoxic medications, viral or bacterial infections or genetics. Hearing loss in the elderly is more likely to be age-related, and therefore progressive.

I have found younger generations, millennials and Gen Z to be the most accepting of hearing assistive devices. As soon as I mentioned that they were Bluetooth enabled so I could stream music straight to my hearing aids, it was like mentioning a magic loophole to covert music streaming. Everyone is using Bluetooth, headphones or ear buds, so having small hearing aids tucked behind your ear doesn’t draw the same attention. Often, millennials find that untreated hearing loss is more noticeable than the device used to correct it.

Hearing loss or impairment is going undiagnosed in people in their 20s. Hearing damage is permanent — there’s no cure and no treatment. It results in more than people who don’t hear well. From classrooms to retail jobs, the inability to hear clearly is something that disrupts education, employment, and relationships. Hearing aids are assistive devices, but will not magically repair your hearing.

For many, hearing loss can also be unnoticed.

In 1731, King Frederick I of Sweden gave a lion he had killed to a taxidermist who had never seen a lion before. The result is a meme-worthy misshapen, bizarrely-nightmarish creature. How are you supposed to know what something is, if you’ve never seen it or heard it before?

I use the tree analogy. Draw a picture of a tree. Most of us will draw a trunk and a cloud-like outline of leaves, and we recognise it as a tree, even if we know that trees have individual leaves. My hearing is that basic tree, but I never had the experience to know that trees (hearing) were supposed to have leaves (detailed background sound.)  

The few warning signs I had were these;

  • Asking to have things repeated often.
  • Not always responding when spoken to.
  • Having trouble hearing when spoken to from another room.
  • Misunderstanding conversation.
  • Trouble hearing when it is noisy and in group settings.
  • Turning on subtitles.
  • Ignoring sounds coming from behind.
  • Experiencing ringing or buzzing in the ears.
  • Turning head towards the person speaking.
  • Difficulty with telephone conversations.

This week has imparted two facts; hearing aids make excellent headphones, and social perceptions towards assistance devices are wildly different between generations. As a student of languages, I’m sure that my educational results will improve, now that I can hear what is being said – and I recommend that everyone goes and gets their hearing checked. I certainly didn’t have any idea that my hearing was poor until others started noticing and suggesting that I have a checkup, and today I’m passing that on.

Go get a hearing test.

You too, might not be able to see the trees for the leaves.


Words by Madison Kennewell

Illustration by Grace Mackay

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