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TX: 26.04.06 - Hearing problems

PRESENTER: WINIFRED ROBINSON
ROBINSON
Many of us lose a little hearing as we gain a little maturity. But for Nick Maes, who's only 44 and a travel journalist, going from hard of hearing to profoundly deaf has taken only a decade. And then just recently Nick was the offered the chance to hear again with two new generation digital hearing aids. Nick has agreed to share the experience with You and Yours. Today he describes how he lost his hearing and how his life changed as a result.

MAES
Deafness is a peculiar affliction, I think mainly because it's invisible and unless you were born deaf or if it was suddenly thrust upon you through disease or accident, it's a cunning and sneaky disability too. My hearing has deteriorated gradually over the last 10 years or so. The telltale signs, in retrospect, were obvious. I had the telly volume on full in an effort to understand the talking heads, I was always saying - What? - and getting folks to repeat themselves and sometimes missed out on conversations completely. My misunderstanding of song lyrics was - how shall we say - somewhat eccentric.

MUSIC

I thought she was saving the day all these years instead of sailing away. Even so I didn't think I was deaf, I just didn't hear so well.

About five years ago a friend suggested I see my GP. Eventually I was given an appointment with an ear specialist. One test later and yep I was diagnosed as deaf. The central frequencies in both my ears had collapsed. I was given a small device at the time that promised to help alleviate my condition. I don't want to sound too ungrateful but it didn't. The instrument amplified everything - I was in Camden but was able to hear a dog whistle blow in Brixton and a crisp packet rustle in Chiswick. But still couldn't hear speech properly.

I gave up with the crude electronics and persisted - listening to the world as I knew it.

Partial hearing in a busy environment is a huge hassle. What happens is that the background din of other people's chatter merges into a wall of white noise. I have to crane my neck and cup my ear in a bid to get the gist of what's being said. Eating out in restaurants can be an outward bound course of me dodging the waiters and wine glasses and statuesque napkins in an effort to lean across the table to listen. But because my deafness was gradual I wasn't consciously aware of what I was missing out on. I'd assumed that birds just didn't sing much nowadays in the city. It's surprisingly easy to slowly adapt to a life that's muffled.

Reactions to deafness are diverse, impatience is frequent. I'm sure the shopkeeper is irritated when he has to repeat himself two or three times but perhaps not quite as irritated as me, with myself, for having to ask him over and over. But the reaction that most got up my nose was condescension - I can't stand it when someone speaks to me in slow drawn out vowels, enunciating every last syllable as if speaking to a moron. I might be deaf but I'm not stupid.

But it's not all doom and gloom in my sound dampened realm. Flying - I spend huge amounts of time in aeroplanes because I'm a travel writer, it's peculiarly satisfying. The drone of the plane numbs the tinnitus and I'm left in a comfortable world of not having to be social with anyone, whizzing through the skies doing pretty much what every other passenger does.

But my hearing hasn't improved and I went back to my GP. Another appointment was made at the hospital, more tests were run and hearing aids were recommended for both my ears. But rather than the useless booster I'd been given five years ago I'd be fitted with digital hearing aids.

Trepidation nags at me, I'm afraid that having hearing aids might be an anti-climax. If I'm truthful I may not want to hear the world as it is. I'm quite used to the impaired perception I've got. And I also wonder if having two lumps of beige plastic sprouting out of each lug will in some way mark me out, a stigma stuck on my head that says handicapped. It's vanity, I know but that's what I'm thinking.

ROBINSON
Nick Maes and we'll be finding out how those new digital hearing aids actually work in tomorrow's programme. And you can now sign up for our disability newsletter through the website, that's www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/youandyours.



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