Interview with Jeff & Debbie: Part I

by Adam Farhat

In late October of this year, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff & Debbie, a couple that have continued to be an active part of the Hard of Hearing Community.  After an exchange of emails where they shared with me parts of their story, I asked them if they would be open to an interview.  An expected 45-minute interview lasted over an hour and a half, and even then, we still only scratched the surface.  I want to thank Jeff & Debbie for being so open and candid with me.  Here is the first part of our interview. 

Adam: Again, thank you both for making yourselves available for this interview.  I really enjoyed reading your story.  I am excited to dig deeper and learn more about both of your experiences with hearing loss.  But first, how has managing the impacts of the pandemic been for the two of you?

Debbie: Well, interesting it’s been quite an eye opener in a way that I never thought.  We can hear people with their mask on since we have our cochlear implants!  If we just had two hearing aids it would have been a real struggle for both of us, I think.  But I am surprised that we can function so well, and an interesting thing we’ve noticed is that people are more patient because it’s not just us that struggle with understanding behind a mask.  A lot of other people do too!  So, when you ask someone to please repeat themselves, it’s almost like this is the fact of life now!

Jeff: And I would add to that.  I gave blood yesterday and I struggled a little bit with one person I was interacting with, so It’s not perfect, but as Debbie said it’s a lot better.  It would have been an absolute nightmare without a cochlear implant!  Actually, my brother has got a hearing loss worse than mine and he has to ask someone to remove their mask, and a lot of people aren’t comfortable doing that, unless there’s barrier upon barrier.

Before Covid-19 hit, we both were part of a local YMCA.  Debbie is in really good shape.  I’m not in bad shape, but I’m not in her league.  We did a massive clean-up job in our attached garage.  We have a treadmill, bench, weights and other exercise equipment.  And I have to say ever since the YMCA was closed, we are probably six days a week out there exercising.  Now, a real test for us is – it’s a heated garage, but that’s a pretty “loose” term – come November, December, January, that’s going to be more challenging!

Debbie:  We miss the camaraderie of going to the Y, or at least I do, but I found other ways to communicate such as online, and until it gets really cold, we get together with our neighbours outside with our blankets and around a fire pit, and we just join together that way as well.

Jeff:  We probably do one of these [virtual] calls two, three times a week.

Debbie: We are watching a lot more webinars and getting a lot of information because many are captioned, and if they are not, we are able to follow along because there’s usually one speaker.

Jeff: Definitely!

Adam: Yes, I think one of the silver-linings of the pandemic is that it has demonstrate the importance and need for accessibility for all.  For my next question, we are going to go back to childhood.  I’m going to start with you Jeff.  Understanding that hearing loss has been a part of your family – your mother and older brother both having a hearing loss.  Can you share with us broadly what the experience was like?

Jeff: I think I do have a congenital hearing loss, but it didn’t become apparent until grade 3 or 4.  I actually got hearing aids, wore them for a week, chucked them away because I perceived that my friends were making fun of me.  They weren’t, I just didn’t want to be different!  I think, growing up in a pretty small city, like Cornwall, the only role models I had for people who had a hearing loss were my mom and my brother.  This was in the ‘70s.  Technology back then wasn’t like it is today.

Debbie: And even recognition or support in schools wasn’t common.  When I asked for support, I was told, “Well you don’t really need much because you seem so normal!”

Jeff: As an example, when my mom had her first type of hearing aid, it was basically this earpiece with a cord connected to a box that attached to her bra strap.  She said it drove her insane, just the chafing of the skin!  She had a significant bilateral loss, and when it became apparent that she would benefit from using two hearing aids – she didn’t.  You hear it all the time – people find wearing hearing aids very uncomfortable and don’t like wearing one – so they don’t!  So, I saw that and also saw my brother not wearing a hearing aid either, so it was fine for me to be a “non-wearer” as well.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really start getting the proper technology until I started paying for my own education.  Even then I started with a small “in the ear” hearing aid that was not strong enough – and that’s where it came back to bite me!

In optometry school, the first couple of years – times have changed now – were basic science – a lit bit of optics, chemistry, and anatomy studying and what not, but it was your third year that you actually started examining your fellow classmate’s eyes.  It was done mostly in semi lit or almost dark conditions, and given I was a lip reader – well I just felt overwhelmed by that!  In the past, Debbie and I could get away with textbooks, or friends could loan us their notes, but when you’re in a practical session, you have to be able to converse and understand, and I just couldn’t do that!  The Optometry Dean said I could come back when I was ready, but I just needed time to figure out what I was going to do – and I thought the Finance world would be the easiest and most comfortable solution for me.

My saving grace growing up Adam was sports. I absolutely loved sports!  I loved the interactions and competition, and yes I didn’t hear what my teammates or coaches were saying sometimes, but most often it didn’t cause a problem in the game or practice.

Adam: Thank you for sharing that, and you’ve highlighted many pieces that I would like to touch more on.  For now, I would like to turn it over to Debbie.  Debbie, my understanding is that your experience was much different, as you didn’t have other family members with a hearing loss.  Can you tell me more about you and your family’s response or reaction when you all found out about your hearing loss?

Debbie: I was born with normal hearing, and I had normal hearing up until I was around 6 years old, when I started having ear infections.  I was diagnosed with a very mild hearing loss that the doctor thought I wouldn’t even notice.  Fast forward to when I started to begin my teenage years, that’s when my hearing really went down.  The support from my family, was that they would just always answer for me, or try and help me that way or try and cover it up.  We didn’t really talk about it, and it was not something that we wanted people to know about.  Someone would ask me a question, and my family would repeat it to me.  It was like sort of hiding it.  That was the environment I grew up in.  It wasn’t a mean environment; it was well meaning.  So, my thought was just plow through, and just do what you can.  I am just lucky that I had a lot of drive.  I wanted to do things.  When I was looking for a job, one of the headhunters said to me, “Well, with your hearing loss all you can be is a file clerk!”  So I said:  “Alright, I’ll be a file clerk” so I was for a while until I found an ad in the paper that said the Toronto Police was an equal opportunity employer, and I thought “Okay, that sounds good for me”  – and I applied and got the job, and for the rest of my career I worked for the police service.  But back then, that was my mentality, you just sort of… hid it.

Jeff:  Just one little story I want to tell, it still sticks with me to this day!  Grade 3 or 4, my whole class, we were led into a gymnasium, and there was this woman sitting at this table and she had some equipment with some headphones. What they were doing was quick hearing tests.  When it came to me, she said, “you can’t hear that?!”  And she pointed and said, “I want you to go and stand over in the corner over there.”  So, I had to wait for all my classmates to finish being tested, and they were all snickering, and then the audiologist had me come back the next day.  She did apologize to me for singling me out, but even to this today, it still bugs me a little, that insensitivity.

Stay tuned for the next part of this interview, where Jeff & Debbie share with us how they met, their experiences with hearing aids, and the stigma they’ve dealt with.