Hearing Impaired, Not Deaf
April 17, 2017
Robyn Skodzinsky noticed she wasn’t raising her hand as often as other students. In third grade, Skodzinsky was taking a mandatory school screening for hearing. She had been tested several times and was caught cheating. The tester caught on, and Skodzinsky was tested alone with her back to the tester. At that point, the tester noticed loss of hearing in Skodzinsky’s left ear. It is likely that she was born with hearing loss, but it’s not certain. “I don’t think it came as a surprise to anyone that I had difficulty hearing,” Skodzinsky said. “Mostly, I think everyone was relieved that they could finally turn the TV down.”
At the age of 15, Skodzinsky received her first Behind-The-Ear (BTE) hearing aid for her left ear. As she aged, she lost more of her hearing. At 17, she received a second BTE hearing aid for her right ear and her hearing loss was considered moderate. She is now 36, and her hearing impairment is considered severe. She currently has a pair of BTE Super Power (SP) hearing aids, which boosts certain frequencies by as much as 80 decibels.
All hearing aids are designed differently to accommodate different hearing losses. The BTE hearing aids are best for those with a high levels of loss. In-The-Ear (ITE) hearing aids tend to be best for those with mild loss, and are often worn by those who gradually lose their hearing as they age. Skodzinsky’s hearing aids are extremely strong and have custom-made earmolds to ensure a tight fit, so that feedback isn’t heard by those around her.
“I was very excited to get hearing aids,” Skodzinsky said. “Some people are embarrassed that their hearing aids are visible, [but] I would rather people know that I have trouble hearing. My brother also wears hearing aids, but wants his to be as inconspicuous as possible.”
Skodzinsky believes that her hearing loss has had a positive effect on her life. She relies on visual cues—including physical changes brought on by emotion—to help her communicate. “I think [my hearing loss] has led me to be a more empathetic person,” Skodzinsky said. “I am also more sensitive to the negative treatment of those who are differently abled.”
If Skodzinsky loses any more hearing, her hearing aids may no longer be a benefit. She can no longer enjoy music or live theater like she used to. Because of this, she feels a strong sense of loss. For watching television and movies, she uses closed captioning since she can’t hear the actor’s voices.
“About two years ago, I realized I could no longer hear birds singing, even while I was wearing hearing aids,” Skodzinsky said. “That moment was probably the hardest I’ve had as a hearing impaired person.”
Skodzinsky learned to speak naturally, but she had trouble making a few sounds like ‘s’ and ‘r’. Without intending to, she learned to watch for visual cues to help bring context to a conversation. She isn’t an expert lip reader, but she does rely on lip reading at least 50 percent of the time.
“It is hardest to lip read when someone has facial hair, because it covers their mouth,” Skodzinsky said. “It can be hard to understand small children, as they are just developing their speech patterns and may not enunciate as well. Children are always willing to repeat themselves or phrase their statement a different way.”
Skodzinsky’s parents didn’t think learn-ing American Sign Language (ASL) would be beneficial—in the early 1970s, it was considered best to “mainstream” Deaf and hearing impaired kids. This means that they should learn to speak and lip read, not learn to sign, and go to “normal” schools with “normal” kids.
Skodzinsky’s family needed to modify their way of communicating with her. They could no longer call her from another room or speak with their back to her.
She has three brothers and one sister who all wear hearing aids. Her half-sister, Diana, and half-brother, Tommy, virtually went deaf overnight when they were toddlers caused by an ototoxic flu medication.
Two of Skodzinsky’s brothers, Matt and Mark, wear BTE hearing aids like her. Like her, they lost their hearing gradually. Their hearing loss was more gradual than Skodzinsky’s and they only began to wear hearing aids in their late 20s.
All five of them, Skodzinsky and her siblings, have sensorineural hearing loss–damage to hair cells and/or the cochlea. “A cochlear implant may be beneficial for me if I lose more hearing,” Skodzinsky said. “It is assumed that we all have lost hearing because of ototoxic stimuli in our environment. While we know what caused Tommy and Diana’s hearing loss, we don’t know what stimuli is causing loss for Mark, Matt and myself.” Some pain relievers, antibiotics and antihistamines, are known to be ototoxic for some people.
Skodzinsky works at King Elementary in the Ann Arbor Public School district. It tends to be a very inclusive environment. She tries to be deliberate and upfront with anyone she hasn’t met: “I briefly explain my hearing impairment and how they can effectively communicate with me,” Skodzinsky said. “Most people appreciate this and almost always remember me from that moment.”
It is harder to speak to someone on the CapTel at work, because she cannot read their lips or see any visual cues. The CapTel isn’t perfect, there is a delay between what someone says and what is captioned on the phone. Sometimes it takes a minute for the captioning to come on the screen.
Laws and College
The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) has helped Skodzinsky tremendously. It assures her that she can rely on legal protections when they are not freely given. This was very important while she was in college, as she was able to ask for reasonable accommodations, such as asking the professor to wear a microphone.
Accommodations have been made and improved to help those who have loss of hearing. This helps them do simple, everyday activities like talking on the phone, using an alarm clock, etc. “I prefer to communicate by email and text rather than using a telephone,” Skodzinsky said. “But when I do need to use the phone to call someone, I use the captioned telephone (CapTel). I also use a special alarm clock that shakes my mattress and turns my lamp on and off until I wake up.”
Being Around Others
“Those who are Deaf wish to remain unaided by hearing aids or cochlear implants,” Skodzinsky said. “They have a unique and rich culture that is often fiercely protected. Those who are hearing impaired often feel like they are outsiders to both the Deaf and hearing communities since they are neither Deaf or hearing.”