Tag Archives: deaf and hard of hearing

Hearing and understanding are not the same

– Sarah Sparks

Hearing and understanding are not the same. Hearing sound is not just about the ear. AN image of a white woman with black pulled back hair holds a hand behind her ear.

Deaf and hard of hearing professionals who use hearing technologies sometimes find ourselves in challenging situations. Whether at conferences, in daily work environments, or in other professional settings, we encounter frequent misunderstandings about our hearing abilities. At times, hearing colleagues mistakenly believe that we understand everything that is said so long as we have heard it. We might need to advocate extra strongly for ourselves when a conference organizer declines to provide American Sign Language interpreters, CART services, FM systems or other accommodations because we have access to sound. Colleagues who see us every day might assume that we have access to information when we do not: that we understood an oral exchange simply because we heard it.

The following is repost from Sarah’s blog and you can see Sarah sign her blog in ASL at this link.


Family members of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) people sometimes ask me questions like this one: “My deaf child seemed not to hear when I asked if she finished her math homework, but she understood when I said, ‘Dinner is ready!’ Why did she hear one but not the other?”

Like many DHH people, I have experienced hearing without understanding. As an audiologist and cochlear implant user, I know to expect this from myself. But awkward situations do occur sometimes. I might find out that a neighbor spoke to me in the hallway and now believes that I’m rude because I didn’t answer. Or a friend thinks that I don’t care about their problem because they mentioned it while I wasn’t looking and I didn’t catch all of what was said. Or a family member is confused because I understood, “What movie do you want to watch?” but missed, “Could you do the laundry tonight?”

Explaining, “I heard it, but I didn’t understand it,” can be a challenge. Most people, including our hearing friends and families, have never had to think about the differences between hearing and understanding. What are those differences, anyway? To answer that question, we need to consider the following:

Hearing devices do not provide “normal” hearing. Hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other devices are great technologies. Many DHH people use them for access to sound, but they do not provide “normal” hearing. DHH people have more access to sound with hearing devices than we have without them, but these technologies do not work like eyeglasses that correct to 20/20 vision.

Hearing is not just about the ear. We hear with our brains, not just our ears. Hearing aids and cochlear implants do not repair damage to the tiny nerve cells in the inner ear, the bones in the middle ear, and other parts of the ear’s anatomy that may be affected. Because of this, DHH people who listen through hearing devices do not necessarily receive the same sound input to the brain as hearing people.

Hearing that sound is happening is not the same as processing sound. Determining where a sound is, how far away it is, what kind of sound it is, and whether it is different from other sounds: all of these are possible because of auditory processing in the brain. When a hearing person is listening, they have access to subtle auditory cues. These are variations in sounds that we need for differentiating one sound from another. They play an important role in auditory processing. Even with hearing devices, most DHH people will miss some of these cues. In some situations, these cues are missing for hearing people too. Have you ever struggled to understand someone speaking through a megaphone, intercom system, or out-of-tune radio? Hearing a spoken message does not necessarily mean that all of its information was accessible.

What might happen if a DHH person heard the message, but some of the information in it was not accessible? A few examples:

  • Misunderstanding words and sentences: the DHH person heard, “The samurai” instead of “The sand is dry.”
  • Misunderstanding the tone of the message: the speaker was excited, but the DHH person heard their tone of voice as angry.
  • Difficulty hearing in background noise: the speaker’s voice seemed distorted by the noises in a restaurant or at a party, and the DHH person did not hear the words clearly.
  • Perceiving a sound as far away when it is nearby: the speaker was near the DHH person in the hallway, but the sound of their voice seemed farther away. The DHH person did not know that the speaker wanted their attention.
  • Perceiving two similar but different sounds as the same: the DHH person consistently hears /m/ and /n/ as the same, so words like “moo” and “new” also sound the same.

Listening for understanding requires cognitive effort. Auditory processing isn’t the only thing that the brain does with sound. Language processing is a whole other topic for another day (and spoken language is not the only kind of language!). For now: making sense of sounds and understanding their meanings within a spoken language requires effort and energy from our brains. That effort is greater for DHH people who use hearing devices because the auditory input that we receive is not the same as hearing people receive. Noise in the background means that even more cognitive effort is required for listening. When a person has to use more cognitive resources to listen, their ability to comprehend and remember auditory information decreases.

Think of it like the gas tank in a car: when the road is clear and you’re driving at a steady speed with no delays, you will use less gasoline than you would when driving the same distance in a rush hour traffic jam. For most hearing people, daily listening involves clear roads and steady speeds with a few pockets of occasional traffic. The day ends, and a new day begins with a full tank of gas. But for DHH people, there are fewer clear roads. The day is full of traffic jams and roadblocks like background noise, lack of access to visual cues, and complex listening situations where auditory information is missed. The day ends, but our gas tanks never get refilled completely. Our hearing coworkers and classmates might be ready for a nap by the end of a long day while we were exhausted and in need of a listening break (and maybe a nap too!) by noon.

Why did the DHH person in your life hear what you said just now but didn’t seem to hear you five minutes ago? Maybe they heard you talking five minutes ago but didn’t know that you were talking to them. Maybe because they thought you were talking to someone else, they opted to save some of their listening energy for later. Maybe they heard what you said five minutes ago but another sound was happening at the same time and their brain prioritized that sound instead. Maybe the speech sounds of what you said five minutes ago were more challenging to understand than the speech sounds of what you said just now. Maybe the DHH person is exhausted from a long day of nonstop auditory input, and what you said five minutes ago required more listening effort than what you said just now. Or maybe you spoke more softly five minutes ago and they didn’t hear you at all. There are many possible reasons that a DHH person might not have understood a spoken message.


A smiling, young white woman with glasses wears her dark hair back to show her cochlear implant.

Dr. Sparks holds a clinical Doctorate in Audiology (Au.D.) from Gallaudet University. She is the founder of Audiology Outside the Box, an audiologic counseling and aural (re)habilitation-focused telepractice. She also works part time at another clinic, providing cochlear implant, hearing aid, and diagnostic testing services. Currently, she is studying at Gallaudet for a Ph.D. in Hearing, Speech, and Language Sciences. Her clinical and research interests include pediatrics, vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, cochlear implants, the audiologist’s role in counseling and self-advocacy skill development, and audiology services provided in American Sign Language. Her Ph.D. dissertation research will focus on vestibular dysfunction and its impact on deaf/HoH children.

What is the impact of mutual mentoring networks such as The Mind Hears?

– Michele

Why does representation of disabled academics decrease through the academic ranks? 1)support also decreases with academic rank 2) academic ableism is under recognized and 3) lack of role models. We need mutual mentoring networks and resources such as The Mind Hears.

For the 2020 Geological Society of America meeting back in October, Ana and I prepared a recorded presentation on how The Mind Hears provides a necessary mutual mentoring forum for deaf and hard-of-hearing academics. Because of the pandemic, the on-line meeting consisted of pre-recorded talks. Below, you will find our 11 minute 30 second recording. Here is a table of contents for the recording that may be helpful if you want to jump to a specific topic:

  • 0.00 – When you consider less than ideal communication settings, lack of support and relative isolation of deaf/HoH academics who work at hearing institutions, you can see why few deaf/HoH can thrive in academia
  • 2:51 – In 2018 we started The Mind Hears blog to create a mutual mentoring network for deaf/HoH academics.
  • 3:33 – Outlines the expanding content and impact of the blog.
  • 5:18 – The recording shifts to discussing the statistics of disabled academics and the decreasing levels of support with academic rank that mirror decreasing representation. (see also post on where are the deaf/HoH academics)
  • 8:12 – In addition to lack of accommodation support, folks at all academic ranks encounter academic ableism, focus on the medical model of disability over the social/cultural models and lack of role models.
  • 10:12 – Examples of mutual mentoring for disabled scientists (this was at a geological sciences meeting).
  • 10:47 – Conclusions

You can also see the video on YouTube at this link that has the chapters time stamped.

Profile: Dr. Jaipreet Virdi

Young woman with brown skin and long black hair smiles. She has dark brown eyes and wears a black shirt and jacket. The background is blurred.

Check out Dr. Virdi’s debut book, Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History (link here)


Current Title: Assistant Professor
Location: University of Delaware (Newark, DE)
Field of expertise: History of medicine, technology, disability
Years of experience (since start of PhD): 12
 Website: http://www.jaivirdi.com
Twitter: @jaivirdi 

Background?
I was born in Kuwait to Sikh parents. At age four, I became ill with meningitis and was hospitalized for nearly six months. During the course of my recovery, we learned that I had lost my hearing and mobility and that my eyesight was severely weakened. Rehabilitation taught me how to walk again. Later, I got glasses and was fitted for hearing aids. In 1989, the year before the first Gulf War, my family went to Toronto for vacation and to learn about schooling for me. We ended up deciding to stay, which in hindsight was lucky, as the war destroyed our neighborhood back home. I ended up being sent to a school with a class for deaf and hard-of-hearing children and was educated in oralism and received speech therapy; when I was 13, in grade 7, I was mainstreamed into the school’s gifted program and later mainstreamed into high school classes. 

How did you get to there you are?
I consider myself to be blessed to have teachers who encouraged my inquisitive nature and taught me how to work independently. One year in my HOH class, for instance, I was the youngest student; my teacher crafted a special curriculum for me that required me to conduct a lot of independent research on varied topics, including Greek mythology, medieval astronomy, and even 1950s pop culture. After receiving my BA in philosophy of science, I was lost on what to do with my life. I had been working in fashion merchandising and marketing for several years and it seemed natural to turn it to an established career. I randomly decided one evening to investigate a PhD program at the University of Toronto and set up a meeting with the Graduate Chair. Honestly, I didn’t think I would get in or that graduate studies would be a good fit for me, but I applied because I wanted to see if I could. No one else in my family has a PhD and I had no guidance about navigating academia. Everything was a challenging learning experience. 

What is the biggest professional challenge (as educator or researcher)? How do you mitigate this challenge?
Right now, it is finding a work-life balance, especially because both work and life are occurring at home!

What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
I’m a staunch advocate for captioning for all professional and educational meetings. In the pre-COVID-19 world, whenever I gave public talks, I ensured they were accessible in different ways—having closed-captioning/CART services or providing a printout of my talk for the audience. Now, I caption my recorded videos and insist on captioning whenever I do public events. This insistence isn’t just for me—the way I see it, if this access improves my ability to participate and communicate, then it must improve others’ experiences too. So I try to hold my own work at the accessibility standards I want to see for everyone. . 

What advice would you give your former self?
That intuitive gut feeling? Don’t doubt it. 

Any funny stories you want to share?
Once I was taking a flight and revealed to the airline that I was deaf, so I could receive support services if necessary. When I got to the gate, I identified myself and the attendants instructed me to take a seat where they could see me, so that they could get my attention when it was time to board. While waiting, I felt a tap on my shoulder. One of the attendants wanted to tell me that boarding would begin in five minutes and instead of saying so, he did this series of motions to communicate:

<points finger at me> 
<points to gate>
<makes exaggerated flying movement with his arms>
<shows his hand to indicate 5 minutes>
<gives me a thumbs up>

What is your typical day like? 
On a good day?
Up at 7am, walk the dogs and feed them, have coffee and read a manuscript or article. By 9am, work on my own writing. Emails and lunch. More writing or editing in the afternoon. A hike in early evening with the dogs and my partner, followed by dinner at home and a movie or novel before bed. 

On a bad day?
Who knows, time has no meaning. Neither does sleep!