by Neil Bauman, Ph.D. with Christa
A concerned mother wrote,
My son has an overall moderate hearing loss. He wears hearing aids in both ears. He has a really hard time in the cafeteria. He is in second grade. He has difficulty keeping up with his peers’ conversations because of the noise level, background noise, reverberations, etc.
I have read, and it has been suggested, to have him eat in a small group outside of the cafeteria. He has done that for half the year. Now the school feels really strongly that they want him to start going back in the cafeteria and they feel that this is the best place for him—that he needs to learn to handle noisy situations like these. However, I am having trouble understanding why the rules change for the cafeteria. Why do acoustics seem to matter in the classroom but not for lunchtime? I have trouble understanding why “learning how to handle a noisy room” is more important than giving my son a chance to more easily socialize?
These are excellent questions and deserve a real answer—not the pseudo-logical muddled thinking that the school put forth.
I couldn’t do better than to quote the reply, Christa, a lady who grew up hard of hearing, and knows what it is like firsthand gave. (Incidentally, I also grew up with a severe hearing loss and also know first-hand that she is “spot on”.)
Hard-of-hearing people cannot “get used” to noisy situations just by “wanting to”. This is a misconception that normal hearing people have, but it is just not possible, no matter how much we want it.
Background noise is a problem for almost every hard-of-hearing person I have met. Noise makes it too hard for us to hear what someone is saying, even if we really concentrate (which then makes us very tired). So, if you put me in a room with a lot of people, you are excluding me from the social life. The same thing will happen when your son is put back in the cafeteria. The school officials think they are doing the right thing by putting him back where the social life is, but actually, they are really excluding him from the social life by putting him in a noisy situation where he cant understand what is being said, even though he is hearing lots of sounds. To him, this is just noise.
That noise is very stressful and may be why he didn’t have much appetite. I usually avoid being in group social situations, but on occasion, I have been to restaurants where it was expected that I would partner my husband. There he is having a wonderful time enjoying the company. And there I am sitting there with a glazed look and polite smile on my face, not following the conversation and just longing for the night to be over so I can get back to my quiet home.
Hard of hearing people are usually only really socializing when they are one-on-one in a reasonably quiet situation or when the group is very small and they are very aware of only talking one at a time.
The other thing that happens is that noise can be most stressful or distressing for a hard of hearing person—especially if they suffer from recruitment. It is exactly the opposite of what we would expect—instead of noise bothering us less when we cant hear well, it bothers us more (a lot more).
I can remember when I was young and we had a chores roster. I couldn’t bear to do the vacuuming (I never realized it was related to my hearing then). I just couldn’t understand why my (normal hearing) little sister would happily trade washing the dishes for vacuuming. I jumped at the offer, but thought she was just being super nice. It is only now that I realize that vacuuming didn’t bother her at all and she liked doing something that took less time (this was in the days before dishwashers).
I don’t think it is possible to “learn to handle a noisy room” for some of us. If I was forced into this situation, it would stress me out every day. The school needs to talk to a hard of hearing advocate who can explain that it is not something under our control and is not something that it is possible to get used to.
Thanks for laying it on the line Christa. You are right on.
In a similar vein, a mother of a college student pointed out that going to college is no different than going to elementary school. The noise problem is still there.
My daughter has told me the same thing. In college she had a single dorm room so she could have quiet time. She often went to the cafeteria early to avoid the noise. Many times she would bring her food to her quiet room to eat. When she finally shared her condition and how it affected her, many friends stepped in and took turns eating with her in her dorm room.
I also struggled with classroom and other noise all through my days of schooling from Grade 1 through college. Dealing with noise and not being able to hear because of it is a health hazard. In fact, for a while, they thought I had ulcers from the stress of trying to hear when it was just not possible for my ears to pick out and understand speech sounds in the classroom, let alone in noisy cafeterias!
Even today—decades later—out of necessity, almost all of my socializing is done one-to-one where I have a hope of functioning as a somewhat normal hearing person. This is just the way it works for us, and no amount of fancy talking by school officials, hearing health care professionals or anyone else will ever change this fact.