As I left the audiologist, all I could think was: How can I be a journalist now if I can’t hear?
By Erin Fox
It was the summer of 2009 and I had just come home from my first year of studying journalism in DCU. I’d been for my annual hearing test and wasn’t expecting the news that my hearing had dropped and I was being referred for a cochlear implant.
I started to lose my hearing at the age of nine, and after 10 years of a mild, high-frequency hearing loss, I was now profoundly deaf.
The next three years were a struggle. Hearing aids were of no use to me anymore, I could no longer use the phone, and conversation was becoming increasingly difficult. I was also struggling to keep up in lectures; trying to lip read someone for three hours straight was exhausting. As my hearing continued to decline, so did my confidence in my abilities.
But I learned how to cope and went onto finish my degree, and in 2012, I underwent surgery for a cochlear implant. It’s now nearly five years on and I’m thriving.
I got a job in digital marketing and went on to complete a professional diploma in digital marketing – but I always kept writing.
Now, I’m delighted to be working for two former national news editors at StoryLab, Ireland’s first dedicated storytelling agency.
Working in the media, an industry that isn’t typically deaf-friendly, has its challenges. But it’s not impossible. I’ve learned —and still am learning— how to manage them.
In light of Deaf Awareness week starting on Monday (from May 15th – 21st) in the UK, I thought I’d share some of the challenges I face, and how I manage them.
Not being able to use the phone was the biggest barrier for me in pursuing journalism but just last summer, I completed my very first phone interview.
A quiet room with low ceilings, carpet, and pretty much no background noise, is the key to a successful phone call. Even with the perfect set up, I ensure I repeat back any names, addresses, or numbers, to be absolutely sure that I’ve heard them correctly.
Poor reception or background noise on the other end of the line can make calls difficult, so, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to be calm and confident. It ensures the call runs much more smoothly.
Often in my job, I write case studies, profiles, or research content for a client’s blog and this involves interviewing people over the phone or face-to-face. And this requires taking notes.
Because of my hearing impairment, note taking is a skill I couldn’t develop so I always had a note-taker in college. Doing interviews now can be challenging, but luckily, I can use a Dictaphone and people don’t seem to mind repeating themselves if I need them to.
I practise writing my own notes so even if I can’t catch everything, I can write down notes of key information. That way when it comes to writing the story, I can replay the interview and fill in the gaps.
Meeting new people
Background noise is the biggest conversation killer so, in most social situations, I tell people right away that I’m profoundly deaf.
Although at times I haven’t, because I’ve felt I didn’t need to. Sometimes I prefer to listen, and get used to the rhythm of someone’s voice before I speak up.
It’s only when I respond to something they’ve said, and they look totally perplexed, that I realise I’ve misheard them. That’s when I need to speak up.
It’s hard to cut across someone when they’re chattering away. You don’t want to be rude by interrupting them but you also don’t want to miss out on what they’re saying.
What I’ve found works is to smile and say: “I’m sorry to interrupt you but I need you to slow down. I have a hearing impairment and I can’t understand what you’re saying. Could you start again and slow down just a little?”
I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s been offended by that. Being assertive can be daunting but the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
It takes two to communicate
When my hearing suddenly deteriorated, I had to learn to share the responsibility of communicating.
Putting myself under pressure to hear everything drained my energy. I needed to learn to relax, and be ok with asking someone to repeat something, to take their hand away from their mouth, or to speak more clearly.
And that’s something I’m still learning to do. The cochlear implant has made conversation much easier and I don’t have to rely on lip reading as often. But I do find myself sometimes “trying hard to hear better”.
I have to remind myself that the cochlear implant only helps me to hear; it doesn’t replace my hearing.
Getting a cochlear implant has been a life-changing experience, and I’ve achieved a lot of milestones with it such as completing numerous interviews over the phone, appreciating music again, and the return of my confidence in my abilities.
It’s given me so much but struggling and learning acceptance gave me the tools for managing deafness, and refusing to let my disability hold me back in my career —that’s what makes me thrive.