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I didn't fully realize I had a hearing loss until I didn't hear the oven timer go off from the next room. After seeing an ENT doctor, I learned I had a moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss. I wasn't hearing the upper end of the sound range, and the volume of what I hear overall is too low. My brain replaces the lost sounds with a continual buzzing in my ear- like crickets at a lake in the summer.

Hearing loss is an invisible disability. Once diagnosed, hearing aids can help, but they don’t just turn up the volume. They are highly sophisticated devices that reprocess sound so it can be “heard” by the wearer, and they can help with the buzzing and ringing sounds, called tinnitus. High tech hearing aids came out of Cold War spy technology — very cool!

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But even with hearing aids, I still have challenges at work that make it hard to do my job as a professor. There are ways hearing issues can be accommodated at work under the ADA law, but the person with the hearing loss has to figure out what to ask for. As you are learning about your hearing loss and how to use your hearing aids, you are on your own to figure it out how to address challenges in your work environment. My audiologist says it takes a year.

Some important things to know include:

  • Hearing loss is not just a sound/volume issue. Turning up the volume does not help. In fact, high volume and loud noises can be painful. Many people with hearing losses are sensitive to sound;
  • Acoustics are an issue. Hard surfaces reflect sound; it is not comfortable to be in a small room with hard surfaces;
  • Background noise is a big problem; it is amplified along with everything else;
  • Getting within a few feet of you to read your lips helps us hear — something many of us do without realizing it;
  • People with hearing losses can have balance problems. Stand-up paddling is hard to do now, and I avoid teaching in rooms with steps;
  • Some people with hearing losses speak at the volume they hear — so they need microphones so the audience can hear them.

My new mission is to learn from others with hearing losses at work about accommodations that are helpful. Some of the accommodations one can request — and hopefully obtain, as you are entitled to reasonable accommodation under the ADA — include amplification technology (e.g. microphones); workspaces with acoustics that meet your hearing needs; advanced technologies such as those that convert speech to text.

Having a hearing loss, like any disability, makes doing my job harder. The challenges to hear at work extend to conference rooms and social gathering spaces. And a hearing loss is tiring — one strains to hear all day at work. Hearing loss can be socially isolating. Mostly, it is frustrating, because it is not well understood by the hearing-abled, and it is not always taken seriously enough to be prioritized for accommodation. People assume wrongly that if you have hearing aids you can hear and therefore it’s not a problem. Some feel stigmatized by a hearing loss and want to avoid the stereotypical views as being old and inept, so they may not let others know or seek treatment.

I may not hear 100%, but I can use my voice 100%. I want to educate and advocate to help make things better for anyone else facing the challenges I am now facing. With a hearing disability, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations, but first you have to know what to ask for. And if you are among the 80% of hearing impaired people who haven’t had a hearing test or opted to wear hearing aids when they are recommended, you are missing out on a better quality of life, and you may be at risk for depression and earlier onset of dementia.

With Thanksgiving gatherings just around the corner, remember that turning up the volume on the television will just annoy your family, but not hearing the oven timer could be catastrophic. Nobody wants to eat a burned turkey.

Toby Gordon (tgordon@jhu.edu) is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, with joint faculty appointments at JHU’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine.

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