by David Faucheux
Columnist, technical writer, adaptive tech instructor, and disability advocate Deborah Kendrick turns from escorting us through the healthcare system as blind individuals with her 2019 book “Navigating Healthcare: When All They See Is That You Can’t” to a different aspect of self-help with her just-published title “When Your Ears Can’t Help You See: Strategies for Blind or Low Vision Individuals with Hearing Loss.” In 24,400 words divided among 11 chapters, Kendrick explores the terrain of hearing loss as a blind person based on several decades of personal experience and hard-won mastery.
In a friendly, conversational style, Kendrick takes the reader on a journey of discovery. She opens the conversation by asking, “So, what happens when your sight’s stand-in, so to speak —that remarkable ability you have developed to listen acutely and interpret sound with such keen specificity — is compromised or vanishing … or when the echolocation that used to let you ‘see’ with your ears is suddenly silent?” In the book’s opening chapters, Kendrick discusses how hearing loss negatively impacts functioning. She explains that while sighted people have some workarounds, limited lipreading and visual cues, the blind must “shake the shame,” double down, and become familiar with the range of environmental helps and assistive tools now out there. “You have the good fortune to experience combined hearing and vision disability in the 21st century! At no other time in history have there been so many products and programs available to maximize the hearing you do have …”
The remaining chapters demonstrate that “It’s okay to be blind, and it is okay to have a hearing loss, too.” Kendrick describes some easy strategies, such as choosing a booth in a restaurant, choosing to sit in the middle of a group, electing to invite a small group of no more than six people to lunch, or decorating your home with acoustically friendly furnishings, including rugs, pillows, or wall hangings.
But the advances in hearing aid technology make up the majority of chapters in this book. Kendrick describes the changes that have made these “ear computers” into amazing digital sound-manipulators, able to remove background noises and modify certain sound environments. She discusses the six leading hearing aid manufacturers, only one of which is located in the United States, with the others in Switzerland, Singapore, and Denmark. A discussion follows of the several types of hearing aids on the market and their arrangement of processor, amplifier, and microphone. They include ITE (in-the-ear), BTE (behind-the-ear), RITE (receiver-in-the-ear), RIC (receiver-in-canal), ITC (in-the-canal), CIC (completely-in-the-canal), IIC (invisible-in-the-canal), and CROS (collateral-routing-of-signals). But there’s more.
Kendrick explains that it’s not as simple as plopping devices into your ears and away you go! The process of interacting with and learning the nuances of your hearing aids is a minuet danced between you and the audiologist. It begins with a hearing test to determine the range of the hearing loss and whether it’s sensorineural or conductive, continues with the reading and interpretation of an audiogram, and concludes with a determination of what type of hearing aid will best suit you, based on your lifestyle. But it’s not over yet. Training your brain to work with the hearing aids is also important. This includes several trips to the audiologist as the two of you determine your needs. Describing your use of localization and even echolocation, should you still be able to use this unique skill, is important for the audiologist to know: “… ask your audiologist to move about the room and have you point to where he is. Walk down the hall and demonstrate to him how you can or cannot hear the spaces made by doorways. Tell him if your hearing aids make your ears feel blocked and thus create a barrier between you and your environment. Remember that all of this takes time. You won’t have all the answers and solutions on the first visit with your audiologist. You probably won’t have it all figured out by the second or third visit either.” A subsequent chapter expands possible uses of hearing aids. It examines ways to connect your hearing aids to the telephone. Recent developments include the MFi or Made for iPhone hearing aids. Apps available on the iPhone that allow control of hearing aids get a mention. Android fans will also be in the game soon. Another chapter describes various remote microphones, such as the Roger Pen and ConnectClip, which allow you to hear people in meetings or tune in a lecturer in a large room. This chapter concludes with a discussion of adapters that facilitate listening to television programs. Yet a third chapter describes PSAPs, or personal sound amplification products, and other over-the-counter sound expanders that can be of use to someone with a mild hearing loss for significantly less cost than that of a hearing aid.
The concluding three chapters cover resources, funding, and profound deafness respectively. Deaf-blind consumer resources, including listservs, organizations, and the Helen Keller National Center are listed. I did find this chapter a bit confusing, as resources were interwoven with sections on travel strategies and use of non-hearing-aid devices or apps that offer sound magnification. The resources might have been better placed in an appendix at the end of the publication. Ways to fund your hearing aids and related equipment, including the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP), vocational rehabilitation services, Veterans Administration, or Lions Clubs, appear in the penultimate chapter. The last chapter consists of a brief discussion of how to handle profound hearing loss, though this doubtless deserves its own book, as does the option of a cochlear implant, the ultimate beyond profound deafness option.
In summing up, it is well to remember Kendrick’s closing thoughts: “We are living in an era where possibilities abound and dual sensory loss can be minimized by a plethora of tips, techniques, and tools. What matters is the overview I hope you gain from reading this book — the clearer picture of how large your own life can look, even when your ears can’t help you see.” I consider this book a must-read for any blind person who is also dealing with hearing loss, or anyone who works or lives with such a person.