Skip to content Accessibility tools

Understand Hearing Loss—And Take Action

Close-up Of A Senior Man Trying To Hear Hand Over Ear

For years I have posted this cartoon on my refrigerator. It was sent to me by a cousin long ago, and I have no idea where it came from, but it is right on.

That cartoon aside, my experience has mostly been that I am the only one who seems affected by the noise levels in many restaurants. People with normal hearing (that is to say, unamplified) have the capacity to triage what they hear. Their brains process what they need and sort it out from what they don’t need. For people like me, who wear hearing aids, not only can our brains not triage in the same way, but the amplification exacerbates already loud sound—often to the point of actual pain.

Sounds in public places that don’t seem to bother other people but are horrible for people with hearing aids include chairs scraping on tile or concrete floors; impact sounds, such as hammering or items being dropped; or sudden loud bangs, crashes; large vehicle brake screeches; and screaming children (or adults). These and many more create actual pain.

What surprises many people is that even paper rustling can be beyond irritating—even painful—if that is the range of sound that the hearing aids have amplified substantially. Some of the hardest places to be are live theaters where people rustle their programs—or movie theaters, where people rustle their candy wrappers or shake their popcorn boxes—right near my head (because they are elevated and their knees are at my head level); people in public meetings shuffling their work papers, especially if it’s right in front of the microphone; and in restaurants where waitstaff toss the used dishes into bins.

Finally, someone has written about the restaurant problem. In her article, Why restaurants became so loud—and how to fight back (Vox, 4/18/18), Julia Belluz recommends going out earlier when restaurants are less crowded, requesting a quiet table, asking for the music to be turned down, and complaining to management. I have done all of these things. And generally there is no long-term success. The music may be turned down temporarily—but often the answer is, “we’re not allowed to turn it down.” The table I really need is taken, and the wait staff has no idea what I mean by “quiet,” even when I’ve specifically requested it in making the reservation.

Going early doesn’t always work. I have taken vinyl tabs to restaurants with screechy chairs and asked that they put them on the chair legs to reduce sound. So far, exactly two out of many dozens have done that.

Oddly enough, the converse is also true. People in public meetings who refuse to provide or use microphones virtually lock out people with hearing loss, with or without hearing aids. Museums with video and no captions leave us out. A recent, and unfortunately, repeated experience was going to a museum where the primary exhibit was prefaced by a dark room experience. People with hearing loss are often thrown off balance in the dark, and with no amplification, the speaker was unintelligible. It was scary.

Another solution, and a better one, is to raise consciousness about our responsibilities to each other in this crowded world. We all need to think about our impacts on each other. People with hearing aids should not be the only ones trying to fix this problem. We would all benefit from more quiet, less noise, and proper amplification of the appropriate sounds.

People who refuse to use microphones virtually lock out people with hearing loss.

Next time you’re in a restaurant, ask to have the noise turned down if you notice it, even if it doesn’t hurt. Tell the manager you won’t go back and why. Ask theaters to put notices in their programs or on their screens about not rustling paper. Tell museums and any place else with a counter that we need counter loops to hear. The list could go on, but the real message is to take action whenever possible on behalf of all of us.

Contributor Cynthia Stewart is on the executive committee of the Hearing Loss Association of Washington and active in a variety of civic affairs. For more information about hearing loss, click here.