Travels with my sister: conquering a lifetime of hearing loss

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My younger sister was born three months premature and grew up with pronounced hearing loss. After a recent change for the better, she agreed to join me for a trip…

Kia’s story

I first realised that my sister was different when I was seven and she was six. Forida was told to wear hearing aids and I remember how much they embarrassed her. The chunky beige aids were conspicuous on her child-size ears and, to other schoolchildren, marked her out as different; not one of us.

Things got worse when I was nine and she was eight. Forida was given new equipment including a boxy black microphone that she wore across her chest. It may as well have been a scarlet letter. Fellow pupils teased her daily and I remember defending her with excessive ferocity. My sister who was gentle where I was strident, soft where I was stubborn, and sweet where I was selfish deserved an easier life.

Forida and Kia on a hike in the Chiltern Hills travelling with hearing loss
Atlas & Boots Forida and Kia on a hike in the Chiltern Hills

Forida’s hearing loss affected her academically, but my family didn’t worry as long as she was happy. It was many years later, when I interviewed her for an article about travelling with disabilities, that I understood how it affected her leisure time too. In the article, Forida speaks of dining in a restaurant and dreading having to order because she knows she won’t understand the server. On a separate occasion, she told me that she would love to visit Malaysia, but was scared of travelling with hearing loss. If she couldn’t understand people at home, how could she understand those abroad?

I, who have travelled the world, found in this a profound poignancy. I wanted to encourage my little sister to travel, but did not know how to beyond empty platitudes. I could tell her to ‘leave her comfort zone’, but when life at home is already uncomfortable, venturing abroad seems unduly punishing.

Forida out and about in the Chiltern Hills
Atlas & Boots Exploring the Chiltern Hills

Forida seemed resigned to her hearing loss. I saw how she would give up on group conversations and let her mind wander, or avoid engagement with strangers to sidestep potential problems.

It was in July this year, on a visit to my mother’s home in London, that I saw in her a change for the better. Forida had taken a recent hearing test and raved about a pair of aids: “I didn’t realise how bad my hearing was,” she said. “When I put them on, I could hear lights humming and clothes rustling.”

A few days later, she sent me a picture of the Oticon Opn aids and explained that, sadly, they weren’t available on the NHS. Instead, she could get a pair two levels down. I spent the evening researching the aids, reading reviews and poring over testimonials – among them politician Edwina Currie who said that the aids had changed her life.

Forida and Kia on Coombe Hill in the Chiltern Hills travelling with hearing loss
Atlas & Boots Kia and Forida on Coombe Hill

With the same pulse of protectiveness that I felt as a child, I booked Forida an extended hearing test at Harley Street Hearing, choosing to pursue the private route. Together, we met Jas, a senior audiologist who confirmed that Forida would indeed benefit from the Opn aids.

My ultimate aim was to show Forida that travelling with hearing loss need not be frightening, so once she adjusted to the aids, I booked us on a trip. We agreed to start small and booked a break in the Chiltern Hills: not too far from home in London, but far enough to see something new.

Atlas & BOots

Below, Forida describes her journey in her own words – from receiving the aids to taking our trip. From what I observed, my little sister was far more relaxed and at ease. I suspect this was not only because the aids help her hearing, but also because they’re surprisingly discreet. Forida’s childhood aids marked her out as different and she seems finally free of their legacy.

Forida’s new hearing aids are practically invisible
Atlas & Boots Taking pause on our day hike

Forida is undertaking training to help her relearn how to discern words, sounds and pitches. Reaching maximum capacity will take time and commitment, but she seems far more open to travelling with hearing loss. It may well be years until she’s ready for Malaysia, but the Chiltern Hills were an excellent start.

Forida’s story: living and travelling with hearing loss

A verbatim account of Forida’s journey, from receiving her hearing aids to taking our trip.

Getting set up
Friday 31st August 2018

I was given one pair of Opn miniRITE chargeable hearing aids. My audiologist, Jas, helped me to download an app called Oticon ON which helps me to hear straight from my iPhone and helps me to turn the volume up and down. She showed me how to use everything step by step and how to maintain hygiene. When I went to book another appointment, for the first time I could actually hear everything that the receptionist was saying. She was so lovely and said good luck with your journey with the new hearing aids. I was soo excited. I couldn’t wait to go and explore everything.

A moment of reflection in the Chiltern Hills
Atlas & Boots A moment of reflection in the Chiltern Hills

I left the clinic with a smile on my face. I couldn’t contain the happiness in me. I wore my hearing aids all the way home and at the same I was listening to every single sound which I couldn’t hear before. When I got to the underground station, I kept hearing so many beeping sounds. I kept thinking ‘where is it coming from?’. Then I realised it’s all the people touching in and out with their Oystercards. It was loud for the first time ever. It did feel like every sound was getting too much, but using the Oticon app helped me to turn the volume down through my iPhone.

When I got home, I showed all the equipment to my husband and explained one by one what they will do for me. I could hear everyone’s voices and I was able to choose whose voice I want to pay attention to. I could hear every word that my three year old was saying without asking her to repeat it. I was so excited to hear her speak every word. It was such an amazing feeling.

Shopping with my daughter
Saturday 1st September 2018

Today, my older daughter and I went to Westfield Stratford City to buy some bits for her secondary school. I thought let’s eat in a noisy place because I want to see if I can hear her. I was able to turn the mic up on my iPhone to hear my daughter louder and I could actually hear every word she spoke.

Forida chats to her elder daughter
Atlas & Boots Forida chats to her elder daughter

I felt really confident for the first time ever. Usually, I wouldn’t speak much because I get annoyed asking the other person to repeat the words. I’m looking forward to exploring this brand new world.

Coping with a loud workplace
Saturday 29th September 2018

I work in a busy catering service and wore my hearing aids to work. At first, it was so overwhelming with so many noises thrown at me. The first week was the hardest with adjusting them. It took me a month to get used to what sound volume I was comfortable with.

Forida can hear her children in busier places
Atlas & Boots Forida is more confident conversing in noisy places

I’ve been taking LACE (Listening And Communication Enhancement) hearing tests online which will help me to get used to hearing words in a noisy place, which is exactly what I need to cope with noise at work and at the same time hear words.

The sounds I couldn’t hear before
Monday 1st October 2018

I can actually hear my children breathing when they are asleep. I can hear tiny white noises or a clock ticking which I could never hear before. Or birds tweeting in the morning. It’s amazing that when I want to hear a certain sound, I can put the volume up and hear it clearly. At first, I did jump at some noises and kept thinking what is this or that sound.

Taking a walk in the Chiltern Hills
Atlas & Boots Taking a walk in the Chiltern Hills

My husband said that my hearing aids are helping me so much. He said that for the first time I am not stressed out or frustrated. I don’t have to have him repeat his words as much and our children’s words. I feel I can speak to my children so much better now.

Forida with her children in the Chiltern Hills
Atlas & Boots Forida with her children on Coombe Hill

I organised a gathering with some friends in a busy restaurant. I was able to hear well and clear, but I prefer gatherings to be in quieter places. In noisy environments, everything can be too loud at first, but that’s where I can use the app to turn the volume down and turn up the mic on the iPhone to hear the words louder.

Travelling with hearing loss
Saturday 10th November 2018

I, my two eldest children and my sister Kia went on a trip to the Chiltern Hills. I’ve always been nervous about travelling with hearing loss and this was a good way to test my confidence.

I noticed so many differences. I usually struggle to have conversations on the train because it gets too noisy and I find it difficult to hear. This time, I was able to hear everything as if we were having a normal conversation in a quiet place. I was able to interact with my kids and my sister more than usual. For example, they were playing a game where they were testing each other on the world capitals and I was able to take part.

Forida is now more comfortable travelling with hearing loss
Atlas & Boots Forida is now more comfortable travelling with hearing loss

In the Chiltern Hills, we went on several hikes. It was lovely to hear birds chirping and leaves rustling and to experience something new. At one point, my son said, ‘I love exploring this place’ and it made me realise that I should take my children to new places to experience new things. Travelling with hearing loss should not put me off.

Ready to explore the world
Atlas & Boots Ready to explore the world

We went to some local restaurants and a lovely tea shop where I was able to order with confidence. My improved hearing is really helping and I feel much more confident in myself. I am not afraid to get out there and explore more. I actually had a nightmare that I left the house without wearing my hearing aids. They have become a part of my life now and I feel so grateful.

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