‘Deaf’ for a day: Experience of life without any hearing

Helen McGurk with the implants
Helen McGurk with the implants

Can a hearing person ever really know what it is like to be deaf?

HELEN MCGURK spends the day with implants and experiences the sound of silence.

To the casual bystander, I must resemble a meerkat as I stand on tiptoes, jerky head movements peering right, then left, then right again as I try to negotiate crossing a busy Belfast city centre road.

I am on high alert and circumspect because I am ‘deaf’ for the day, after having moulds inserted into my ears which simulate 50-60 per cent hearing loss, and I am acutely aware that not being able to hear properly means I could get run over by a car, cyclist, or, indeed, another plugged in pedestrian listening to music or gabbling on their phone.

My hearing has always been pin-drop sharp - the only time I had a scare was when I was seven months pregnant and something bizarre happened.

One day my ears seemed to fill up with white noise, it was similar to the sensation of being in an aeroplane, sounds were ‘muffled’ and I had a horrible stuffed up feeling.

I spent eight weeks barely able to hear and saw doctors and specialists, but no one could figure it out. It nearly drove me up the walls. Thankfully when my daughter was born, my hearing returned to normal.

So, when I was asked to be ‘deaf’ for a day, I didn’t relish the prospect.

I had the moulds (a substance resembling Blu-Tack) inserted into my ears by an audiologist at digital and invisible hearing aid specialist Hidden Hearing on Belfast’s High Street.

The 10-minute walk back from there to my office was daunting.

I should have been prepared for it, I suppose - the silence. But it struck me immediately. And, to begin with, I found it very unsettling.

I knew passersby didn’t know I was ‘deaf’ but I was very conscious of it. I thought they could ‘see’ it.

I saw people chatting, laughing, but all I could ‘hear’ were the reverberations of my feet on the ground. I felt disorientated and a bit light-headed.

It has been said that diminution of one sense traditionally amplifies another....so walking gingerly through the streets I could ‘hear’ at least some of the content of people’s conversations; he’s arguing on his phone, she’s gossiping with her friend, they’re exchanging sweet nothings.

Everyone lip-reads to a certain extent, and everyone is fluent in the language of the body and the face. But the main sensation I had was of losing my anchor to the world - I felt out at sea. I didn’t like it.

I nipped into a shop, but rifling through the spring fashions I was petrified someone would come over to me and start talking, so I fled like a scaredy cat. I was also wary of bumping into someone I knew and have them strike up a conversation; I did not want to be unwittingly rude by failing to respond to a question.

Back in the office it was like someone had hit the mute button, people were tapping on keyboards, talking to each other, answering phones, but it was all happening in silence.

The phone rang - I could make it out, but obviously couldn’t answer it. My colleague became my secretary.

Communication with others was a disaster. Well, not quite a disaster, but it was a slow and tiring process.

Workmates talked slowly and exaggeratedly with special extra facial expressions. It was like a cross between sign language and charades. I could lip-read some of them, but the mumblers, no way. And eye contact, focused attention and closeness was very much required. It was frustrating.

Notes were written on pads - ‘would you like a cup of tea?’. I typed my answer so the inquirer could read it on my computer screen. It was hard work.

I decided to stop talking, because I was informed I was shouting very loudly - a bit like that annoying guy on television who bellows ‘HELLO’ into an oversized mobile phone.

A good chin-wag with colleagues was out of the question. I wanted to tell them about the weekend I’d had, but I couldn’t. To be honest I felt a bit lonely, excluded, bored.

But as the day wore on I started to feel a peace, a serenity. I can see there must be some compensations, if you can call it that, to being deaf or hard of hearing. You can leave the world outside, with its mobile phones, car alarms, pneumatic drills, loud neighbours and relentless noise, and enter a world of total focus far from the madding crowd.

But then lunchtime arrived and a rumbling stomach forced me back out to the bustling city streets.

I copped-out and brought my work colleague Richard (just in case),

In the sandwich shop, the assistant asked for my money - It was loud and I didn’t know what he was saying, so I looked at him gormlessly, handed him a fiver and inwardly prayed it was enough. Richard explained to him that I am doing a deaf experiment. He smiled and signed ‘thank you’. It was nice that someone had momentarily entered my temporary deaf world.

Back safely ensconced behind my desk, I realised this was the first time I had really thought about the challenges deaf people face in their day to day lives. They obviously can’t listen to the radio, hear their baby crying, go to the cinema, the list goes on. And on.

Obviously there is also the prejudice and connotations. People with hearing impairment can often be perceived as slow on the uptake, a few crucial beats behind the rest of the world.

It is also an ailment more usually associated with the elderly. Only about two per cent of young adults are deaf or hard of hearing, but in people over 60 that rises to 55 per cent.

According to Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf), around 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are deaf, have some degree of hearing loss or tinnitus.

In most cases, hearing loss is linked to age and natural wear and tear. Sudden deafness, a condition where people can unexpectedly go deaf in minutes, affects 5,000 people a year in the UK. Around two million people in the UK use hearing aids, 1.4 million on a regular basis and some 50,000 people in the UK use British Sign Language as their first language.

I was just settling into my ‘deaf’ day when my mobile rang and the word ‘School’ flashed up. I felt panic-stricken. I couldn’t answer it. What if something had happened one of my children? I raced round to Hidden Hearing and had the implants removed. Noise flooded my senses. It was a blessed relief. I rang the school and all was OK, but I got a harsh taste of what it must be like for the deaf among the hearing when there is a panicky moment, a potential emergency.

This experiment allowed me just the tiniest hint of what it is like for the deaf among the hearing; but what is clear is that society needs to make more noise about this subject.

It has made me appreciate the challenges hearing impaired people face, and made me rejoice in the magic of listening.