“We hear as we breathe—effortlessly—until we can’t” Katherine Bouton
In her memoir, Shouting Won’t Help, Katherine Bouton writes that forty eight million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. You don’t have to be entirely deaf to have trouble hearing, especially in crowded, noisy situations.
Hearing speech is usually the most difficult problem for those with hearing loss. Bouton claims one in five people, across all age groups, has trouble understanding speech and many cannot hear certain sounds at all.
Hearing difficulties are known to outnumber vision problems by a sizable percentage. And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that hearing aids don’t work as well as glasses. In fact, by amplifying certain sounds, they sometimes make hearing worse.
Helen Keller considered her deafness to be a much more serious limitation than blindness. “…it means the loss of the most vital stimulus—the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”
Bouton first became aware of her problem when she was only thirty while working as the editor for the Times Book Review and then later, at other departments at the Times. She couldn’t catch everything being said at the group meetings she attended and even in speaking one-on-one with a person in her office. She heard voices, was aware who was speaking, but didn’t hear the words they were saying.
As she got older, she heard less and less, “I had trouble at teacher’s conferences. One of the kids or my husband would fill me in. I missed most of what was said in school assemblies. I never heard a single graduation speech. There were times when my hearing loss was wrenching. I missed confidences, murmured fears, muttered anger. I never heard the backseat chatter and gossip between my children and their friends.”
Eventually she became bilaterally deaf, all the while hesitant to begin wearing hearing aids. They are expensive, for some unattractive, easy to misplace, and sometimes not particularly helpful. Eventually she began using them, but they didn’t improve her hearing a great deal.
To my delight she said email is the” best thing that’s ever happened” to those who have trouble hearing. She has received emails using voice-activated software that she might otherwise not have been able to hear on the phone.
She finally accepted a cochlear implant, in fact two of them, and they came with their own limitations, like trouble transmitting music very well. She took a lip reading course, studied body language, met with researchers, and then other audiologists. But she never did recover her hearing.
“Despite my sophisticated devices, I still can’t hear well enough to follow a conversation except under optimum circumstances—one-on-one, facing each other, in a quiet place. I hear speech, but I often don’t understand it.”
Hearing loss affects friendships, family and professional lives. If you know anyone who has trouble hearing, you might want to tell them about Katherine Bouton’s book. It might help them to recognize a hearing problem that they have been denying or simply unaware of.