Around 700,000 people in the state of Arizona are hearing impaired. Michele Michaels is one of them. As an outreach and educational specialist for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Michele travels throughout the state providing information, resources and support to people of all ages faced with the challenges of hearing loss.
You have a progressive condition that has caused your hearing loss. When did you first notice it?
I was in my early 20s, and a colleague had to tell me that my watch alarm was going off. I thought, “OK, I guess I can’t hear some high sounds. No big deal. But as I got older, I lost more and more hearing, to where my co-workers would say, “We’re five feet away and you’re not responding to questions we are asking!” So I went and got my hearing tested, finally. They said, “Yes, you need hearing aids.” I started learning about this whole area.
Talk about what a hard of hearing specialist does. What role do you play in helping those who are coping with hearing loss?
I try to help them learn how to use their hearing aids, show them what to look for when they buy hearing aids or, if hearing aids are no longer helping them, [explore] what else they can do. But hearing aids aren’t the only part of the puzzle. I might be talking with them about other types of assistive technology, or maybe even the American Disabilities Act and what their rights are.
What do parents need to understand about hearing loss in children?
The most important thing is to detect it. Newborns need to go through their screening in the hospital, and then if they fail the test, the parent needs to bring them back for a follow-up. Sometimes they will fail, and then the next time they’re fine. If they fail again, they need to get all of the help and support that they can so they know what they can do to help their child to grow and learn and communicate.
How do older children most often discover that they may have hearing loss?
It is not always the person with hearing loss who figures it out. It is somebody who loves them, who is around them. You don’t know what you can’t hear. It’s sort of like the kid who gets glasses for the first time and says, “Wow, I can see the world.”
So it is up to the parents to follow through if they suspect there is a problem. Any clues?
Acting out, isolating, not going out as much, bluffing, nodding and smiling and laughing—but they don’t get the joke, they didn’t hear it. Children can feel very alone. With some, their peers may say, “Hey, why didn’t you show up Saturday night at the skating rink?” It’s because they didn’t hear the last part of the sentence. Teens can suffer socially by missing out.
Plenty of devices exist today that enable kids to play music directly into their ears through ear buds and headphones. Is this affecting hearing?
Noise-induced hearing loss is the number one cause of hearing loss and is the most preventable type of hearing loss. If you’re standing two feet away from somebody and you can hear their music, it’s too loud. They’re damaging their hearing. They just don’t know it.
What impact can hearing loss have on a child when either a parent or grandparent is hard of hearing?
I am the child of a parent who progressively lost her hearing and went deaf. And that’s what is happening to me. For a long time, I really thought my mother didn’t like me that much because she wouldn’t respond to me. And she had no clue. I realized later she never heard out of that ear. She really didn’t know that I was talking to her. I realized it wasn’t that she didn’t like me—she just didn’t hear me.
So the person with the hearing loss isn’t the only one who misses out.
Our relationships are built on how we communicate with each other. So if I don’t respond to you because I didn’t hear you, you might thing I’m stuck up. Right? Maybe [you think] I’m ignoring you, or I’m arrogant or I’m better than you—you’re not important to listen to. We need to be able to teach our children how to communicate and how to communicate clearly.
Once you discovered your own loss, were you able to share the information with your mother and help her as well?
I realized what was happening to my mom. I said, “Mom, why don’t you do something about it?” She said it was too expensive; they wouldn’t be able to help. So I had hearing aids and my mom didn’t. My brother took her for hearing aids but they said at that point it was so bad that the hearing aids wouldn’t help.
The discovery of your own hearing loss, and how it affected your life, your mom’s life, and your relationship, inspired you to switch careers. You began your work supporting the hearing impaired. What is the best part about what you do?
My mother passed away a few years ago. But every time I help somebody, I feel like I’m helping my mom. I get so much joy out of seeing people start using an amplifying device [for the first time]. Their eyes light up, and they say, “I can hear!” You can stay connected and not be isolated or withdrawn—with the right technology.
Phoenix multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids and through her own company, Small Change Productions.