Acoustics, Hearing Aids and Hearing Loss

Nothing defeats me and my hearing aids faster than bad acoustics. Some beautiful rooms have destroyed my hearing ability and rendered me deaf. Deaf in the presence of sound, how can this be? Here is Wikipedia’s definition of deafness: a degree of impairment such that a person is unable to understand speech even in the presence of amplification.

Amplification doesn’t cure hearing loss and hearing aids aren’t called ‘hearing miracles’ for a reason. Hearing aids are mechanical means of hearing. To get a better idea of how they work, turn on a recorder and record sounds of every day activity for about ten minutes then listen to it. Or imagine hearing life through a cell phone, wind over the cell phone sounds the same way in hearing aids. Some voices sound far away and some closer. Hearing aids pick up and amplify unwanted noises which makes the acoustics of a room all the more important.

Most of my hairdressing life, I worked in small salons which all had tiled floors. Five or fewer of us worked at each place. Blow dryers grated on my hearing aids like fingernails on a chalkboard but that wasn’t the only thing working against me. Four other blow dryers might be going off at the same time as well as hairdryers, then add people trying to talk above the noise. Sound bombarded me from every direction making me hyper-concentrate on the person talking to me in my chair. By the end of the work day, I was exhausted. I took my hearing aids out right after the last client for much needed hearing break.

Then I moved to the big city with big city salons. I found work in the most beautiful, professional looking salon I’ve ever been in. It had high ceilings with dark wooden beams lining it, big beautiful windows which started two feet off the ground and gleaming, hardwood floors. She decorated it modern style with simple stark furniture. Not much hung on the walls because the walls consisted mostly of windows. A rock shampoo wall made a unique feature in the salon. Another bonus was a basement beneath for storage and appliances like washer and dryer.

When I started working there, I struggled more and more with my hearing. There were times I couldn’t hear the person in my chair. After a few months, I noticed I coped better with only a couple of us working but when four or more of us were there, I got lost in the sea of noise. I tried working later or earlier in the day to avoid the noise but clients couldn’t always come in during those hours. Many a day I went home to throw myself on the bed and cry in utter frustration.

Thinking maybe I’d lost more hearing I consulted a couple of audiologists who told me it wasn’t a big drop in hearing but suggested higher powered hearing aids. I didn’t know about that as I thought the hearing aids I had were pretty awesome. Between not being able to hear clients and clients not returning since I was boring, no conversation person topped off with phone issues, I quit.

Not long after that, I attended a banquet in a room with high ceilings and lots of windows with outdoor carpet on the floor. I did fine at first but as the place filled up, I started drowning in all the noise. Music played and people talked a little louder so the music went a little louder which made people talk just under a shout. I cold barely hear the person sitting next to me let alone the anyone sitting across the table. A few nice people tried to include me in conversation but I understood so little, I spent most my time shrugging my shoulders and confessing I was half deaf. I stared hard at other people’s mouth trying to keep up and it hit me, I was trying to rely on lip reading. All the noise left me deaf. This revelation turn me upside down. The more upset I got, the worse I became at lip reading. As I struggled for any scrap of sound to form words, the more I heard the collective roar of the crowd. I was deaf in this situation.

After that, I started paying attention to noise and acoustics. Looking back at that salon, I saw why I had so much trouble. Noise bounced all over. I worked near the rock shampoo wall in the middle of the salon so I caught all the noise. Unconsciously, I chose the middle of rooms hoping to hear more and hear more I did. When the girls walked across the floor in their high heeled boots, their footsteps reminded me of gunshots (basement beneath the hard wood floor). Every little noise was amplified in the gorgeous salon making it an acoustic nightmare.

Sometime later I attended a large workshop in a hotel banquet room. I prepared in advance in various ways (making sure speakers wore my FM system) but I feared the acoustics of the room. As I walked into another large room with high ceilings and huge windows, I thought, “oh no, another nightmare.” I sat up front and when the speaker started talking, I understood almost everything. My worries fled and I took heart looking around. I noticed the windows all had drapes lining them and sheer curtains all the way across letting in some light but soaking up sound. The carpet beneath my feet was more lush than the banquet I attended some months before. I relaxed and enjoyed my conference.

After that success I became brave and decided to attend another workshop. This one was held in a small room with concrete floors and white boards across 2/3 of the walls. The walls didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, leaving about two feet exposed to outside rooms and other noise. The ceilings were open, artfully showing the air ducts and when the air-conditioning kicked on, the room flooded with harsh static that filled my hearing aids, like wind over the cell phone. I understood maybe a quarter of what was said in that workshop and no way could I participate in any classroom discussion.

It was a three night series workshop and each night I went home to a glass of wine sniffing back a tears. I did everything else right, spoke to the presenters before class telling them I couldn’t hear well. I introduced them to my FM system, asked for outlines to better follow along and even asked if they could face my way as much as possible. I still didn’t hear enough to get what I paid for and missed valuable classroom feedback. Acoustics defeated me once again, leaving me nearly deaf.

Once again I’m working as a hairdresser. The tiny salon I work in is not the best acoustic situation but it being a one person salon, I control my environment enough to make it work. It has tiled floors and a lot of bare walls along with a great big mirror. Sound bounces around but I leave the radio so low, hearing people barely hear it. I can turn off my blow dryer and ask for a repeat.

As soon as I build up clientele, I have ideas on how to make it better. Sheer curtains over the window. A rug near the door. Some sort of cloth hangings for the wall and maybe a plush couch in the adjoining room. I will add a tall bookcase to make a book swap. All those things help soak up sound.

I never thought noise and deaf belonged together but it does. There’s loud concerts, loud tools, loud vehicles and crowded, loud rooms. Noise can make for deafness, even for “hearies” in certain situations. I do not understand how normal hearing can fade so much of that to the background and I’m jealous.

Here are some of things which make for bad acoustics:

  • high ceilings
  • bare floors
  • any hard surface
  • windows left bare
  • nothing on the walls
  • hardwood or plastic furniture
  • being in the middle of a noisy room
  • background noise

How to fix bad acoustics:

  • curtains
  • blankets
  • wall coverings
  • bookcases (good news for those of us who love to read)
  • rugs/carpet
  • plush furniture
  • pillows
  • table clothes and place mats
  • going to the corner of a room to talk
  • turning off as much background noise as possible

Sometimes I’m accused of selective hearing and other times I’m amazed and what I hear and then later don’t hear. Maybe it has more to do with the environment and acoustics than I ever thought.

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6 responses to “Acoustics, Hearing Aids and Hearing Loss

  1. I completely understand how this could be true. I’m in choir, and we perform in lots of different types of rooms and I always pay attention to the room because some layouts make us sound REALLY good while others make us sound like crap.

    And I’ve noticed similar things with the hearing loss as well. I will have to pay more attention! (And here’s to hoping my hearing aid doesn’t give me too much trouble when I get it at last.)

  2. Since paying attention to acoustics, I notice just how big a difference it makes!

  3. It’s amazing how such little (or big) things can affect our ability to hear! Honestly I don’t think many would’ve realized it was the acoustics like you did. Sounds like a horrible experience though. Glad you’re back in the salon world!

    Beleigh @ CS Hearing | Hearing Aids Colorado

  4. It took a long time, like 20 years to realize how much acoustics affected me and my hearing aids!

  5. Pingback: Midlife hearing loss: Could you repeat that? | After the kids leave

  6. Pingback: Midlife hearing loss: Could you repeat that? | After the Kids Leave

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