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Hearing loss an invisible battle best fought with others

Anne Greatbatch and Pam Rangitaawa want those living with hearing loss to know they don’t have to go through it alone. PHOTO/ALEYNA MARTINEZ

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In a world filled with sound – of the wind, the babbling brook, and rain for instance – those who suffer from severe hearing loss can sometimes feel they are living on a desert island, cut off from the sweet sounds of birdsong, or laughter.

Masterton’s Pam Rangitaawa has been a hearing loss patient for more than 50 years.

“I wasn’t born with a hearing impairment. When I was eight or nine months old, I had measles and scarlet fever – I was very, very sick.”

“Back then, you had to be referred to a specialist by your doctor to get your hearing checked.

“At kindy, they agreed with mum that I had a hearing loss, but the doctor wouldn’t refer me because he said my speech was too good.”

She remembered in primary school “standing with my head in a corner because I hadn’t done as I was told”.

Anne Greatbatch has been Rangitaawa’s hearing therapist for around 30 years.

With Hearing Awareness Week here [until next Saturday], they want people newly diagnosed with hearing loss to know there is transitional support available and the old social stigma of being “deaf and dumb” is just that, a stigma.

According to Greatbatch, Rangitaawa’s ability to speak fluidly is because for the first eight months of her life she could hear fine.

It is arguable whether this had been a disadvantage or advantage throughout Rangitaawa’s life.

“Dyslexia could be confused with a hearing loss and there’s all sorts of other types of hearing loss which I am lucky enough not to have,” Rangitaawa said.

These days, hearing loss is no longer a mysterious problem that’s ambiguous to treat, but Greatbatch fears people still took their hearing for granted and often, by the time the problem was addressed, it was too late to do anything about it.

At college, Rangitaawa was in the top class, “but I knew I was at a disadvantage because for me to learn in the classroom I had to concentrate and go home and work on what I had learned every day”.

“I had to prepare myself so the knowledge would sink in – and you get so tired sometimes through concentrating because you’ve also got to watch people when they’re moving”, Rangitaawa said.

Constantly aware of where she must sit in order to have a successful conversation, she has picked up techniques over the years to make the comprehension process easier.

“For instance, you never sit facing a window because you can’t see the other person’s face properly.”

Even the small interview room at the Wairarapa Times-Age, drapeless, and lit by fluorescent lights made her extremely uncomfortable.

“Acoustics in a room for someone who’s wearing hearing aids – it closes in on you.

“It’s not a comfortable feeling.”

Rangitaawa said she was frustrated about many things.

But the biggest challenge she wanted people to become aware of was that hearing loss was an invisible disability and people living with it were always working overtime to keep up with the simplest of tasks.

When Greatbatch casually passed a comment just this week about how tired Rangitaawa must get from having to cope with hearing loss every day, fighting back tears Rangitaawa said “a wave of relief went right through me for the first time, it’s the first time it’s ever happened that somebody has said they understood how hard I had to concentrate”.

“You actually said I must get tired and how tired I must get from concentrating because when you’ve got the kind of loss I have, you do have to concentrate all the time,” Rangitaawa said.

Greatbatch, a therapist with Life Unlimited said the difference between her service and an audiologist service was that “an audiologist would fit hearing aids and do that part of the rehabilitation”.

“Mine is that additional support, assisting with helping them problem solve, strategise, keeping your self-esteem intact – all those other things.

“Just because you develop a disability doesn’t mean you’re okay with it straight away.

“I work mainly with the hearing-impaired sector, so my clients aren’t those that are signers.”

For Rangitaawa, it was a sense of self-confidence and coming from a loving and supportive family that had helped her work three different jobs and head the Masterton Hearing Association as president before it closed seven years ago.

Her mother was a strong woman who would always fight for Pam to get assistance.

“When I finally did see the specialist, he recommended I lived in Timaru and get sent to Van Ash School for the Deaf in Christchurch which would have meant being away from home,” Rangitaawa said.

“There was no way she was going to send her child away – she got into fighting mode.

“They relooked at the whole thing and decided, yes, I can go to a normal school.”

“What I want to get through is – don’t let hearing loss limit you.

“I’ve never let it limit me and I suppose as I got older I was self-conscious about people seeing my hearing aids because there was still that term like I said, ‘deaf and dumb’.”

According to the National Foundation for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, more than 880,000 New Zealanders are affected by hearing loss.

The main message for Greatbatch and Rangitaawa is spreading the message that onus for a happy life is not the responsibility of the patient only.

“I’m quite happy to have hearing loss, honestly, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or anything like that, but I want to be able to help people who are transitioning when they get a hearing aid,” Rangitaawa said.

“We’d like to make ourselves available to talk to some groups of people.

“You can’t do it on your own, you have to have somebody like me come and see you individually, [or] Anne. I don’t mind going and seeing somebody, I don’t mind talking to people who’ve got a hearing loss.”

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