I’m going to start this essay off with a video in which I explain what hearing fatigue is like for me, what happens exactly as I experience it, what causes it, and what helps. The video is about 3 minutes long.
What Is Hearing Fatigue?
Hearing fatigue (sometimes known as “listening fatigue”) is the crushing fatigue that happens to people with hearing loss who are trying to understand what is said.
It’s the fatigue that is born of being hyper-attentive in order to figure out what is going on for long stretches of time, coupled with the invariable piecing together of some sound with a lot of context.
It makes sense that it happens.
This is what it’s like for me, when I am trying to hear:
“Hearing” for me isn’t so much as a matter of picking up sounds and processing them.
Rather, it’s about pulling together pieces of information and making sense of them.
Hearing For Me =
One part facial and physical expression that I’m seeing the other person make +
one part emotion that I am sensing from the other person +
one part lip movement into shapes that I am familiar with +
one part sound that is picked up from my hearing aids =
Gross Total –
background noise and static picked up by my hearing aids –
fluorescent or dark lighting that affects my ability to see or how I process what I see =
“Hearing” is almost like algebra for me, and for others who are like me.
It’s a complex piece of plus and minus; it’s take some (- struggling to place a sound over the buzz of static) and give some ( – seeing an expression or action and fitting it in place as a bonus of sorts).
It’s a dance of addition and subtraction that can equal expression and communication or isolation, fatigue, frustration and depression.
Hearing Fatigue is Real
The process of hearing is draining, and hearing fatigue is real.
I think it’s important for parents of kids with hearing loss to understand how hard their child is actually working at picking up and processing everything in this complex business of listening.
I also think it’s important for adults with hearing loss to understand it ourselves.
I know that for me, I wondered for the longest time if something was wrong with me. I couldn’t understand why I was always so completely drained after being around other people and listening?
It was only through my friendships with other d/Deaf people like me that I realized that my hearing fatigue was coming from straining to figure out hearing people!!
I had no such fatigue in communicating with the d/Deaf.
I just took out my hearing aids and yes, still lipread, but lipreading with people who know how to lipread and how to move their mouths for a lipreader. Accompanying sign language helps tremendously, as does the fact that d/Deaf people aren’t likely to have gatherings in poorly-lit spaces.
What Will Help with Listening Fatigue as a Parent or An Ally:
If you are a parent to someone with hearing loss or would like to be a helpful ally, understand that hearing is a complex process, and:
- Be sure to hold meetings or gatherings in well-lit spaces, preferably with natural lighting
We need to see to be able to lip read and gather all the cues we can to put “sound” together. Bright, fluorescent lighting is known to jangle with the brain, and since we use the brain so intensely to put sound together, it’s a bad option. Natural lighting is best, and plenty of it.
2. Meetings or gatherings should also be in a place with little background noise
This is the thing: our hearing aids pick up all that fuzz and static, and when we have to focus on what is being said OVER the din of the background, we get hearing fatigue that much faster.
The best environments for us are outdoor spaces or bright (- think, lots of windows!) quiet indoor spaces.
3. Get your child accommodations!
Make sure your child has accommodations in class and school.
Captions are a fantastic option, as are some other pieces of technology (like the Roger pen, and things that transmit sound directly to the hearing aid).
4. Teach your child ASL and learn it yourself
Like I wrote in this piece about Nyle DiMarco and LEAD-K, some of us deaf people or hearing impaired might wear hearing aids or cochlear implants and function fine in society.
But at the end of the day, we take our devices out and we are deaf.
I think it’s imperative to remember that, because wouldn’t you want to give your child the gift of a language – a way to communicate – that does not rely on a device or on the full of onus of understanding being on them?
ASL or signed language is like a dip in a cool, refreshing lake on a hot day for me now. I experience true freedom in being able to take my hearing aids off and actually communicate with others without having to focus so hard that I experience listening fatigue (and then want to just crawl in a hole and sleep).
For Those of Us WIth Hearing Loss, Trying To Prevent Listening Fatigue:
- Remember to take breaks and breathe
Deep breaths can help a lot. I use the “breathe” app on my Apple watch (my review of it all is linked here) to help me to remember to set space for myself and breathe.
Sleep helps so much.
You know, our brains are tired of trying to hear. We really do have hearing fatigue.
I think it makes sense to give in and sleep when the fatigue gets to a certain point. I take breaks from a meeting, go to my car and nap for 20 minutes (or just close my eyes and enjoy the silence). Alternatively, I find a quiet place wherever I am, turn off my hearing aids completely, and close my eyes.
Even a short nap or break can re-charge me and give my brain what it needs to continue to function again.
Resist the temptation to say, “oh, it’s ok” and just suffer through (yet another) class, movie, conference, speech, what-have-you.
Ask for the captions!
4. Learn ASL
I know it’s not easy to learn another language when we are adults already, but it’s worth it.
I am still very much learning ASL, and I can’t begin to describe the deliciousness of using ASL and being around d/Deaf community!
5. Get to Know the d/Deaf Community
I mention this because hearing loss is incredibly, profoundly isolating.
We struggle to hear and make sense of things, we are fatigued from the effort and go into our own world to recover.
It’s hard to hear and understand people and it’s hard sometimes for hearing people to understand us. The isolation we experience when we try to make sense with and interact with others is real.
When I first went to a Deaf Community center, (- DCARA, in the San Francisco Bay Area), I was stunned. I had no idea that there were so many others “like me” (that makes me think of a Vulcan going to a Star Trek convention, but I digress).
Here in Hawaii, the Deaf Club is a boon to me and my family.
Sometimes I feel like it’s only with other d/Deaf people that I can truly relax, because they absolutely ‘get it’ – they know I have to watch my kids and I can’t sign or lipread and watch at the same time. They have my back.
That Sums Listening Fatigue Up
I think this covers most everything that I wanted to say in this post, but there is one more thing that I haven’t said that bears mentioning:Resist the medical model: lean in and embrace who you are
The hearing aid and cochlear industry leans hard on parents of hearing impaired kids to get them to purchase hearware. Hearware is fine: I have nothing against it, I use hearing aids myself.
But hearware should not come at the expense of ASL (or any signed language), nor should it come with separation from d/Deaf community.
I believe that our goal in resolving hearing fatigue is to make communication easier, less exhausting.
That ultimately boils down to accessing language that does not rely on sound. That access does not need to be exclusive: we can be bi-lingual! We can have our cake and eat it too: we can utilize hearware and ASL.
I do believe that is the goal.
More Posts on Things Deaf-Related
The Podcast (- Listen to Me Reading This Post! My Mom Likes It!) & Free PDF of This Post Are Below
PDF: I am not at all interested in collecting your email. This system just asks you for it so it can send you the PDF.
Meriah Nichols is a career counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E). Deaf, with C-PTSD and TBI, she’s also a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.