So, How Do You Pronounce That Word?

Own The Equinox Day 3 | Journey Through Hearing and Vision Loss: Living with Usher Syndrome

By Martha Steele

After spending my first grade year at a special school in Rutland, Vermont, I returned to my local neighborhood school in Burlington, Vermont, the Adams School, for the second grade. There was still much work to do to improve my speech. For two more years, I continued intensive speech therapy training separate from my regular school.

The nature of hearing loss can vary from person to person but in my case, the loss was much greater at higher frequencies than lower frequencies. This meant that I could not hear consonant sounds, as they tend to be at higher pitches. Say to yourself, “share” versus “chair” and listen to the high pitch of the ch versus the sh sounds in those words. I could not hear these consonant sounds, and never could with hearing aids.

This of course presents a major challenge in learning how to speak as well as in understanding what people are saying to you. Although I have little memory about the specifics of the speech therapy training that I received as a young child, I certainly remember a lot of repetition with respect to many words. If I did not say it correctly the first time, my speech therapist would just keep repeating until I figured out how to say it, even if I could not hear what either she or I were saying.

It was, in many respects, a pure memorization exercise. I needed to remember how to say the consonants that I could not hear, and then remember which words were pronounced in which way.

I can remember some words that I found particularly difficult. The word, “faucet,” was among them. I kept trying to say “fauket” instead of “faucet,” and I was corrected many times by whoever I was with.

Today, there are still words that I have trouble with, where I have to ask someone how it should be pronounced. But back then, as a young girl trying to memorize all these words and how they should be pronounced, well, it must have been a lot of work for my speech therapist and my parents who worked with me at home.

All the work did eventually pay off, as my speech continued to improve through my elementary school years. Although my oldest brother, Tim (four years older) recalls times that he defended his little sister against others making fun of my hearing loss, I can’t say that I remember much discomfort in social situations with my peers or others.

The next big step for me was changing hearing aids from those that sat in a pocket with a wire to the ear to hearing aids, newly developed at the time, that sat behind the ear. When my mother questioned the audiologist, Vilma Faulk, about the need to switch to a new hearing aid when the current one was working well, Vilma responded by saying that at some point soon, I would be unhappy with a hearing aid wire that was so obvious and could potentially create some social stigma. With a behind the ear aid, it would be possible to potentially avoid awkward or uncomfortable situations, as others may not see, and therefore not know about, my hearing aid and hearing loss.

This was a pragmatic recommendation, and I was soon fitted with new behind the ear hearing aids when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Not only did I get a new hearing aid to replace the old one, I also got a second hearing aid so that I, for the first time, had hearing aids in both ears, improving even more my understanding of speech. Moving from aids in the pocket to aids behind the ear also meant one other good outcome: no longer did my mother have to sew on pockets on all my dresses and shirts or blouses, as she had been doing since I started wearing a hearing aid.

Interestingly, changing to a device that was also more powerful (that is, greater amplification) is not as easy as it may sound. During the testing to decide on which new hearing aids to get, the audiologist took me into a bathroom and flushed the toilet. I immediately started crying, so loud and uncomfortable the sound was. Whether trying on new hearing aids or, today, new cochlear implants, increasing amplification power must be done deliberately and slowly so as not to overwhelm the senses.

All in all, then, I have good memories of my earliest years with hearing aids. I learned to speak fairly well, I was an expert lip reader, and I had state of the art hearing aids to maximize my auditory experience of the world around me. It probably helped, in the social area, that I was already a good athlete, well coordinated, and easily absorbed and accepted into playground games of all sorts. I also had two older brothers, Tim and Brad (one year older), to follow around and who in many respects set the stage for me with teachers who had already taught them before me, both good students. I was getting ready to move on to junior and senior high schools.

Tomorrow: Eat More Carrots!!

On the road again. Between Burlington and Wes Moore, Vermont

August 25, 2016: 24 days until Usher Syndrome Awareness Day
Miles Walked Today: 3 miles, Greater Burlington, VT, area and, VT
Miles Walked To Date: 17.5 miles

Martha Steele is a member of the Board of Directors of the Usher Syndrome Coalition, as well as the Board of Directors of the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, MA. She also serves as a National Trustee and Boston Chapter president of the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

Usher Syndrome Coalition

Written by

Working to find a cure for the most common genetic cause of combined deafness and blindness.

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