For more than a decade, Carren Stika, Ph.D., of National University in La Jolla, California, has studied the psychosocial impact of hearing loss. One of her recent research projects examines how hearing loss affects work and career. Preliminary findings show about one-third of those with hearing difficulties feel incompetent or stressed at work, yet almost 40 percent of these individuals say they would "rarely" or "almost never" ask for an adjustment or accommodation because of it. Why? Because they're embarrassed to admit that they don't hear well.
With hearing loss, carrying on a conversation turns into an exercise in frustration. Business meetings, seminars, conferences, and phone calls become major sources of stress. Misunderstanding directions can be disastrous. Even lunch in a busy restaurant is more than some people with hearing problems can endure.
A fifty-two-year-old advertising copywriter, for example, remembers a particularly painful experience, when she was one of the final contenders for a staff job at a major advertising agency. The human resources director invited her to lunch with a few people from the company. "At first, everything was great," she says. "But as the restaurant started filling up, it became harder and harder for me to hear the people sitting on the other side of the table.
"I knew one of the women slightly and knew that her husband had just had an operation, so I asked how he was. I thought she said, 'The doctor said he's doing fine,' and I told her that was excellent and I was very glad to hear it. Everyone turned and looked at me like I was out of my mind. Finally, the woman next to me said, 'I think you misunderstood. The doctor said her husband is going blind.'
"Of course, I apologized profusely. But I was mortified. I didn't talk again during lunch, and I didn't get the job, either."
Losing Hearing, Losing Friends
While careers can be compromised by hearing loss, leisure activities are affected by an inability to hear, too. Nearly all entertainment relies on hearing, but you can't turn up the volume at plays, movie theaters, or concerts. Is it any surprise that people with hearing loss often prefer isolation to struggling through social functions and entertainment venues outside the home?
Ted and his wife, Jean, had been regular churchgoers until Jean's hearing began to deteriorate. At first, she claimed her reluctance to go out was because the winter weather had made driving too dangerous. But when spring arrived, she was forced to admit that the real reason she didn't want to attend services any longer was that she couldn't hear the sermon or manage conversations during the social hour afterward. As retirees in a small town with no family nearby, Ted and Jean had limited social opportunities to begin with. Eliminating churchgoing from their week left them virtually isolated and out of touch with a group of people they had enjoyed.