May Is Speech & Hearing Awareness Month

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This month is Speech & Hearing Awareness Month in Canada.

Many of us take our hearing for granted. Photo, David Castillo Dominici/ 

In honour of this month, I’m going to hand over this post to one of our writers, who’s willing to share his story with us.

By Adam Ledlow

It’s a rare thing to be aware that you’re experiencing the last sound you’ll ever hear, but rarer still to be able to choose that sound. At the age of 31, with my hearing abilities disintegrated to the point of near-deafness, I find myself faced with this unique – albeit unwanted – choice.

Born with a set of ears in perfect working order, my hearing began slipping away – without my knowledge – sometime during my youth. It’s difficult to pin down a timeframe in hindsight (or is that hind-hearing?), but my true journey into the world of un-hearing began at age 19, when, after a dozen or so failed attempts at getting my attention – and realizing there was perhaps more to the issue than mere teenage apathy – my mother decided it was time for me to get a hearing test. A series of unheard tones and comically misunderstood words later, I found myself returning to my second year of university with a set of hearing aids to accompany my braces and glasses. Needless to say, it was not a banner year on the dating scene.

With my awareness of my own hearing loss now heightened, I began to notice the absence of the most delicate of decibels. The crinkling of notebook paper. Tornadoes of fall leaves on the walkway to class. The rhythmic click-click of chalk on the board.

Worse still, I found that my comprehension of sound, especially speech, was starting to elude me. The sound was there, but the vowels and consonants became muddled in an auditory alphabet soup.

While some might have considered my affliction to be something of a curse, I preferred to think that my life had been granted its own personal volume knob. The obnoxious cell phone user, the screaming toddler, the music-blaring roommate: these noisy nuisances were now a thing of the past.

As the years went by, I became a champion of my own hearing health. I avoided noisy bars and rock concerts. I moved from playing electric to acoustic guitar. I wore earplugs at every possible interval. But despite my best efforts, my hearing continued to diminish, and I found myself in an increasingly quiet world.

And in this new world, I went quiet, too. The extrovert who relished the 20-something social scene became the homebody, moving to soundless, and thereby stress-free pursuits like reading; you don’t have to ask a book to repeat itself.

These days, I struggle with normal, face-to-face conversations, to the point where I find myself wishing back the sound of that obnoxious cell phone user.

At my most recent hearing test, it was discovered that my hearing has plummeted to such low levels that I am now a candidate for cochlear implants. While they don’t restore hearing, the surgically implanted devices essentially provide artificial or bionic hearing for the recipient, giving a sensation of sound to individuals – like myself – who no longer benefit from hearing aids.

And so, I entered the cochlear implant program at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, wary of the surgery and downright dubious of the implant’s place in my life. But after a two-hour information session, I was able to count myself among the cochlear-converted. Surveys and tests begat even more surveys and tests, until it was just a matter of waiting for an opening on the operating table.

I received an e-mail alerting me that my surgery would take place in two weeks’ time. I had been expecting to give something of a funeral to my “real” ears, going so far as to ponder what I might like them to hear for the last time. What sound might be so revered, so perfect, that it would deserve to be their last? My young son’s adorable belly laugh? The words “I love you” from my wife’s lips? Maybe “Yesterday” by the Beatles?

But instead of this funereal focus on the old, the news of my pending surgery had me first-date-giddy about life’s new possibilities. Boisterous bar nights, frenetic family gatherings, heck, even my old nemesis, the telephone: these were things I would soon be ready to try again with confidence.

While there still is an element of nervousness moving forward, I am content to not get hung up on that “last sound.” Chances are, the last thing I’ll hear will simply be the sound of my own voice, drowsy from anaesthetic, muffled for lack of hearing aids, counting slowly backwards from 10, as I drift into the darkness of the unknown.

And that sounds just fine.

Editor’s note: After an initial couple of weeks struggling with new and foreign sounds, Adam is currently thrilled with the success he’s had with his cochlear implant. He delights in hearing and (mostly) understanding his two-year-olds’ declarations, regrets his decision to buy yippy dogs, and apologizes for how loud he eats. He didn’t know – honestly.