Many people have a crystal-clear memory of a pivotal moment in their lives—a wedding, a child’s first word. For former New York Times senior editor Katherine Bouton, it was the day she realized she was going deaf. In her memoir, Shouting Won’t Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can’t Hear You, she recounts her struggles with hearing loss and the shame, guilt, anxiety, and revelations that came with it.
You mention that many people with hearing loss depend on lip reading. Did this make you a better communicator?
I look people in the eye (with my peripheral vision taking in their lips and their body language), so that makes for more intimate communication. Yet living with a hearing-impaired person is difficult. They may deny the problems; get angry and depressed, or blame circumstances rather than admit they can’t hear. It isn’t easy being hearing impaired, but it also isn’t easy being with someone who is hearing impaired. One of the things I do in the book is suggest ways to make communication easier for both the speaker and the hearing-impaired listener.
What has this experience taught you about language and communication?
I’ve been most surprised by the degree to which brain plasticity determines the ability to hear and comprehend what we hear. On a word recognition test, where someone repeats one isolated word after another, I do terribly. But I’m great with sentences. That’s partly because I’m a verbal person—I’ve worked with words all my life, but I’ve also worked very hard at it. I’ve spent many hours in hearing rehabilitation, doing exercises online or with friends, listening to audiobooks and following along with the book in hand. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
Which sounds do you miss the most?
Music. Secrets. I can’t hear whispers. It drives me crazy. Offhand remarks that everyone else laughs at, or rolls their eyes at, or frowns about.
Is our culture getting noisier?
We do indeed live in a noisy world—we are heedlessly contributing to our own deafness. Noise is the single largest cause of hearing loss in America. According to the National Institutes of Health, 15% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss as a result of exposure to noise at work or in recreational activities—hunting, woodworking, attending loud concerts, etc. I’d add spending time in loud restaurants, bars, or sports stadiums, and daily use of MP3 players. Noise exposure needs to be regulated, and noise ordinances must be enforced.