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Why losing your hearing is no longer the deaf sentence it once was

By Mary Kenny

Published 18/08/2015

Hearing problems: Cilla Black was worried about deafness before she died
Hearing problems: Cilla Black was worried about deafness before she died

In the years before she died, the singer Cilla Black had lamented that she was going deaf, and she found this a great affliction. Perhaps she found deafness tormenting just because she was a singer, and she was particularly sensitive to sound. I am going deaf myself, so I can quite see that it is a vexation: but that's how I regard my increasing deafness - annoying, but not tragic.

Actually, deafness is often more annoying to other people than it is to the deafie herself.

Age-related deafness runs in our family, and I well recall the exasperation I felt when older relations would say, "What? Whachyasay"?

"Oh for heaven's sake," I'd remonstrate, "Get a flipping deaf aid, would you!"

Repeating and repeating questions to an elderly person who doesn't hear the first time is maddening. Deaf aids were sometimes procured, and then sometimes lost or cast aside because they were a nuisance, or they distorted the sound, or they picked up too much static.

Strangely, though, the deaf relation would sometimes seem to prick up their ears and pick up on something that they weren't supposed to hear. "My God, you're not saying she's pregnant, are you?" they would suddenly respond to an overheard conversation. "How much did you say he left in the will?" they'd ask sharply.

There is, I am told, something called "selective hearing", because we don't just hear with our ears. We also hear with a process inside our brains.

When I was fitted with hearing aids, I asked did I have to wear them every day and the audiology expert explained that the brain has to adjust and attune to its new wavelength, and learn to process the information. That's why it's no good just popping on a hearing aid every now and again.

But look on the bright side. Aren't we lucky we live in an age when this minor disability can be fixed? We could have lived at a time when a deaf person had to flourish an ear trumpet, which possibly helped somewhat, but was also an object of derision and comedy turns.

It's been well observed that, in performance acts, deafness has often been treated as something funny, and the deaf character made fun of; but blindness has never been thought of as comical. Obviously, we think blindness a greater affliction.

The comedy element of deafness lies in the capacity for mishearing and droll misunderstandings. The novelist, David Lodge, when going deaf himself, wrote a hilarious novel about a middle-aged man growing deaf while his father moves towards death: it is adroitly named Deaf Sentence - the play on words encapsulating the mishearings. You wouldn't think that such a theme could be funny, but in Lodge's masterly hands, it really is.

I wouldn't want to make light of being deaf: and certainly profound deafness must be hard. I can see that deafness could begin to lock you into a silent world, more cut off from the rest of society.

It also makes you tetchy about modern diction. Why must folk mumble so much? Why must they elide their words - running them all together, so you haven't a clue what they're saying.

Even some radio professionals drop their voices at the end of a sentence. "We have just been speaking to... mumble mumble." Maddening.

Deafness makes you sternly judgemental about actors. Actors of the old school know how to project their voices, so you can hear every word they speak - Judi Dench can whisper and you can still hear her at the back of the circle. But young actors have been deliberately taught to mumble (it seems to me) because it's more "naturalistic".

At least, that's the way we hear it. As a young reporter, I once had to telephone an elderly actress, very famous in her day, called Gladys Cooper. When I addressed her a little nervously over the phone, she barked: "Speak up, Gel! Don't mumble." I get it now.

Some voices are clearer than others, and some accents easier than others. I find the best diction often comes from Scottish voices. Listen to Nicola Sturgeon and hear every crisp word she utters. My award for public address announcements goes to Norway, where the English at airports rings out with vocal lucidity.

Deafness is apparently becoming more common among a generation who listened to a lot of loud rock music in their youth. This means that there will be more research and improvements in aids for the deaf - and amelioration of the condition, if not cures. And it's lovely to see so many public events now accompanied by sign language - a beautiful form of mime reminiscent of ballet movements.

It's understandable that Cilla felt depressed about her deafness. Yet it's a condition that can be greatly helped and supported.

Belfast Telegraph

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