Loss becomes a gain: Insights emerge from hearing loss experiment

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When Judy Creuz entered elementary school, teachers discovered she could not hear like the other children. Doctors speculated Creuz lost hearing in one ear as a result of having the mumps as a toddler.

Today, Creuz is an instructor and clinical audiologist for the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) at Penn State.

“My own hearing issues led me to audiology by way of special education and speech and language pathology. I love being in this field and helping others to hear better,” Creuz said. “I have an easy rapport with others because I really understand the problems they are having in their everyday lives. It has turned into the perfect fit for me.”

In her role, Creuz believes it is important for her students to understand what it is like to have a hearing impairment before working with clients who have such a disability. That’s why Creuz asks students in Introduction to Audiology, CSD 230, to participate in an experiment.

For one day, students wear an earplug in their dominant ear, which is the same as their dominant writing hand, and then document their experiences. Students are encouraged to wear the earplug on a day with activities, such as classes, dinner with friends and extracurricular activities.

“It started out as wanting to give them a taste of my life. Then it turned into something I do every semester because they do learn from it,” Creuz said. “They learn that even some hearing loss causes some disruption in your life.”

The challenges

Through the experiment, students face many challenges. First, students must be extremely cautious with typical daily actions, including crossing the street, because vehicle and bicycle traffic can be harder to hear.

Secondly, students experience difficulty hearing in a group setting, like having lunch at the HUB-Robeson Center.

Students also experience challenges in the classroom, such as difficulty hearing the instructors, taking notes and focusing, in part due to chatter among classmates that ordinarily would not be a major distraction.

Clark Knudtson, a CSD master’s degree student, recently participated in the experiment by wearing an earplug from the time he left the house in the morning until he returned home in the evening.

“It was a whole lot more difficult than I expected it to be, and I felt like I could never pay 100 percent attention,” Knudtson said. “You’re just trying to figure out what the person’s saying and get that down, you don’t get that second level of thinking where you’re putting everything together and thinking about what you’re hearing.”

In social settings, friends sometimes become frustrated if a student participating in the experiment asks them to repeat themselves. Sometimes friends even make fun of the student or harass the student for not being able to hear.

The night before, Knudtson went to dinner with a group of friends at a noisy restaurant and had no trouble having a conversation with someone at the other end of the table. However, during the experiment, he found he had trouble hearing in a classroom with only two students near him.

“I had to ask ‘what’ multiple times. I couldn’t single out a person’s voice, even though the night before the restaurant was louder and there were more conversations going on at the same time, in class it was significantly harder to hear,” Knudtson said. “I did become self-conscious after awhile just because asking someone ‘what’ makes someone feel like you’re not listening to them.”

The lessons

In part, students learn first-hand the challenges people face if they have a hearing impairment.

“They start to have a realization that people aren’t always treated well when they have a disability,” Creuz said. “They get some sense of the social implications of having a hearing impairment.”

For example, while in a lab with other students, Knudtson stood up, turned around, and accidentally hit someone to his right with his book bag as he had no sense of anyone behind him.

“I thought my balance and spatial awareness was off the entire time. It always felt like one of my senses was not there. I thought my other ear would make up for it but it didn’t,” he said. “It affected my day a whole lot more than I expected it to.”

In their careers, when students work with people who have hearing loss they now understand them, Creuz said. Students who completed the exercise know to enunciate and face the person as they speak to them.

“They understand and know not to just get frustrated and say, ‘never mind,’” Creuz said. “They know to be kinder.”

Hope Schmid, who has a dual major in French and linguistics, wore the earplug on a day she had to work and attend a meeting. Initially, Schmid made a conscious effort to pay attention to what people said as she was actively aware she did not have as much hearing ability in her dominate ear.

“As the day went on, I slowly forgot about it and started saying things like, ‘What? Can you repeat that?’ By the end of the night I found myself turning my good ear toward them so that I could hear them,” Schmid said. “The experience helped me build empathy for people who have this and deal with it on a daily basis. I just wanted to tear it out of my ear.”

While Knudtson and Schmid managed to make it through an entire day, not all students complete the exercise.

“Many students cannot make it through an entire day with the earplug. They can’t deal with it,” Creuz said.

As another benefit, after the exercise, some students also change behaviors to prevent damaging their ability to hear, such as not listening to music as loudly or wearing ear protection when at a loud event.

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Last Updated January 30, 2015