My Journey of Discovery: What the Hearing Impaired Really Want


By Max Stanley Chartrand, Ph.D., NBC-HIS

August, 2007

As I prepare to attend my 30th consecutive International Hearing Society annual convention, I'm thinking back to my first CE class. I cannot recall the presenter, but I remember clearly his opening words:

"We have a product that almost no one wants for a problem few admit having."

Reaching deeply into my personal experience, not only as a hearing instrument specialist, manufacturer, researcher and educator, but as one of the many who have had to accept a product for a problem that I often failed to perceive existed.

My journey began at age 3 when I contracted a severe case of double mumps. The malady wiped out all my high frequencies from about 1KHz and above. But my early "Texas twang" possibly hid most of the defects in my speech from anyone around me.

I cannot recall a particular point in time when I became aware that I was severely hearing impaired. As the oldest child in a large family, no one seemed to take much notice that I was different.

And by the time I was taken in for my first hearing aid fitting in 1961, the audiologist suggested that my hearing was too far gone to benefit from amplification. Thank goodness for a mother that didn't see it that way.

As far as I was concerned, I was not sure why I needed a hearing aid, other than the novelty of having a way to anonymously make a noise (feedback, which I could not hear) that got everyone in a dither. The kids loved it, especially because the adults didn't.

Did I associate it with fact that I could not participate freely in the banter of group conversation with hearing loss? Or the inability to understand someone shouting down the hall (are you talking to me???)? Or hearing the end-of-day announcements over loudspeakers at school? Not at all.

The question is asked, "Where were you when the news of JFK's assassination hit the radio waves?"

I was sitting in 5th period art class, Denver South High School, trying to decipher another blaring, blurry announcement over the intercom. It was exactly 2:14 pm. I know, because the clock was the only thing that I could decipher on that particular wall. Staring at the speaker didn't make it understood, but it kept me from looking like an idiot during the announcement.

Afterwards, however, I noticed the kids around me crying and going hysterical, and wondered what it was all about. I was bored and wishing the bell would ring. The girl at the desk across the aisle looked at me in wonder. "Didn't you hear that ________just died??" No, I didn't. Was it the hamster in science class, one of the students, or perhaps Dr. Anderson, our aging principal? I couldn't begin to guess who she was talking about until after the bell rang, and while unloading books into my locker, a friend explained that it was JFK, the widely admired President.

Delayed reaction—the hysteria by then died down to slumped shoulders in silent hallways—now hit me personally with a jolt of realization.

Such is the folly of deafness. News in real time is a rarity, whether an announcement of a gate change at the airport, a car coming out of nowhere while crossing the street, or one's child being stung by a swarm of bumble bees in the backyard.

Was I yet aware of the degree and severity of my hearing loss? Not really. Nor did I yet look fondly upon the necessity of wearing my hearing aids.

As a college student circa 1966-1970, I struggled mightily to hear the professors. Sitting in a large lecture hall, I was at a complete loss. Seeking help from arrogant professors evoked wonderment that I would even have the audacity to be in college. I felt like an idiot, and read five books to every one assigned to make sure I maintained my scholarship (yes, a deaf guy on a scholarship; who would've thought?)

By this time, wearing hearing aids was still more of a formality for everyone else's sake; certainly not my own. It was not until the 1970s when I entered hearing health field that I became aware of the absolutely devastating damage deafness causes those who (often unknowingly) suffer from it.

But it was not long until I started seeing myself in my own patients…the retired gentleman deep in denial with a moderate to severe impairment, the school child putting hearing aids snugly in coat pockets as they board the bus, the lady fresh from the beauty shop who insists on a high power device that no one can see or none at all.

Today, although professional experience and anecdotal evidence tells me that the figure is much higher, at least 10% of a rapidly aging population suffers from hearing loss serious enough to warrant assistance. Half of that group is under 60 years of age.

Almost 60 years after the advent of electronic hearing aids, and only two million units to serve more than 35 million Americans are sold each year.

Seventeen years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), assistive devices available at theaters, amusement parks, concert halls, churches, schools, and hotels sit idle in their plastic wrapping.

The history of organizations focused on helping the hearing impaired is riddled with ambivalence toward hearing devices and the private practitioners that provide them. Deaf organizations silently shout against ever-expanding advancements in hearing aid and cochlear implant technology. Derision greets many of those who dare cross the technological and (re)habilitative bridge to social, educational, vocational, and personal fulfillment.

So, one might ask, "What do hearing impaired individuals want?"

Pondering the foregoing against the backdrop of personal experience, I can confidently say that they are tired of being an invisible segment of their social circle. They want to hear small talk and contribute in kind.

They want to hear intimate speech without the glare of lights overhead, and to hear clearly the words, "I love you, I appreciate you" in tones that match the message. They want to bond and feel at one with others.

They want to be good fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, sensitive to others' needs and thoughts. They want to know who you're talking to on the phone without asking, or to hear you talk through the door when caught in bathrobe.

They want to hear announcements over the intercom and laugh, cry, or yawn with classmates. They want to be able to relax and enjoy, to breathe deeply and freely, not anxious and tense during a meal at a fine restaurant.

They want to hear the dialogue over the music, television without dominating every cubic inch of the room, and their spouse to smile and squeeze their hand in the quiet moment, no repeating.

The young school child wants to hear the teacher and Johnny, too. They want to know tomorrow's assignment, and not be misdiagnosed with attentional deficit. They want to be accepted in the schoolyard, maybe even be the team captain, but especially to participate in the banter and not be made fun of for sounding like Baby Huey.

The working adult wants education, to gain skills, and be promoted to management someday. They want to be able to communicate like everyone else at noisy worksites, and hear clearly on the roadside phone when the car breaks down.

The elderly hearing impaired individual want to be able to pass the Mini Mental State Exam when the crucial questions are asked, without having checkbook, driver's license, deed to their home, and personal independence taken from them.

Millions of tinnitus sufferers who also have (uncorrected) hearing loss want to hear external sounds instead of the ones inside their heads. They want someone to tell them that "something can be done" to manage tinnitus problems, not that they "must learn to live with it".

What do hearing impaired individuals want? They want all of the above, and the only way they can get it is by seeking out the services of a dedicated, caring hearing instrument specialist, a local cochlear implant team, and/or assistive technology counselor.

Borrowing from poet William Butler Yeats, the hearing impaired individual is like the Falcon flying in ever widening gyres, searching for answers to their steadily advancing problem. The professional dispenser is like the Falconer standing below, welcoming arm stretched forth, waiting for the struggling Falcon to come home.



Dr. Chartrand is educator, researcher, and managing director at Colorado-based DigiCare Hearing Research & Rehabilitation. Hearing impaired, he utilizes a cochlear implant and assistive technology for communication, and often writes and lectures from the perspective of the hearing impaired consumer. Contact: