Clara Zaffagni in a portrait taken for Delano in November 2016 by Mike Zenari
Speaking up (loudly) for the hearing impaired.
I have thought about it--no one would ever get mad at someone half-blind for walking into a wall, would they? But if you constantly ask people to repeat themselves because you’re half-deaf, you tick people off.
I know, because I used to annoy nearly everyone. Maybe I still do, but not because I can’t hear. Until I got hearing aids in October, my kids thought I just wasn’t listening. My first response to everything they said was “what?”, followed by a long pause, and then I’d repeat what I was guessing they said. “You did hear!” they’d complain.
Sure, I heard (but not my phone buzz or the doorbell) but I didn’t understand. And there’s a big difference between hearing and understanding, as anyone married will know. But how is it possible to hear something and not understand it, unless it’s a foreign language you don’t speak or dolphins?
I thought I just needed everything amplified, until I had to repeat single words during a hearing test. They were easy, loud words. Man. Hat. Car. I got them wrong, which showed how much I had been relying on context.
Later, during the fitting for my hearing aids, specialist Philippe Malchaire showed me a chart displaying letters that I can and cannot hear due to my particular hearing loss. You never really miss the letter F till it’s gone. Or T or D. It’s not uniform--you can lose the ability to hear certain ranges of sounds--and I realised that I’ve been playing verbal “Jeopardy” for years, and it’s exhausting.
Clara Zaffagni had the same problem. Her husband didn’t believe she really couldn’t hear the baby crying at night; he thought she just didn’t want to get out of bed.
She’s staring at my mouth as we talk: ten years of not hearing well have made Clara proficient at lip-reading, but two years ago she realised even that wasn’t enough. “It became impossible at work, especially during meetings,” she says. “It isn’t that they are uncomfortable, it’s just that it’s a nuisance.”
Also a nuisance were certain sounds she suddenly heard again. “The car indicator drove me crazy,” she confesses, “but I don’t even notice it now.”
Clara was in her early 30s when she noticed she had a problem. There’s no age limit for needing a hearing aid, but there is a hearing loss limit to get hearing aids. You have to have a 30% hearing loss before national insurance will pay for them, and they cost about €1,800 for the basic pair. If you think you have a problem, you can take a test at lots of hearing centres or opticians, often free of charge.
If the test indicates a serious problem, you’ll be sent to an ear doctor, and if doctor detects a serious problem, you’ll be tested again by the health ministry. If you qualify, the trial period starts, where you try various models and get several adjustments before going to the ministry again for a final check-up. It’s like taking up a new hobby for a few months.
The day I got mine, it was like “The Wizard of Oz” going from black and white to colour. But when I heard a loud humming noise that night, out on a walk in my quiet neighbourhood, I thought my hearing aids were defective. Nope. They were picking up the sound of constant traffic. Turns out my neighbourhood is not as quiet as I thought. So there’s that, but there’s also the letter F. And birdsong.