Students Become Partially Deaf for a Day in Audiology Course

November 11, 2009

At the dentist’s office one day, Joelle Ference, a Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) major, had an interesting experience. “I had been waiting for awhile in peace and quiet,” she recounts, “when all of a sudden the whole group of people in the waiting room jumped and shrieked. I asked the woman next to me what was going on and we were both surprised to find that I did not hear the big bang of thunder.”

Ference was wearing an ear plug that day as part of an assignment for a Communication Sciences and Disorders course. “From this project, I learned how precious my hearing truly is,” says Ference. “The moment I put in the ear plug, I felt like someone had removed one of my limbs, something so necessary for everyday life.”

All students taking Dr. Judith Creuz’s introduction to audiology course (CSD 230) wear an ear plug for one day to experience what it would be like to have hearing loss. Creuz, who wears a hearing aid because of her own hearing loss, says she wants students to know what it’s like to live in her world. Students in Creuz’s class also have the opportunity to brush up on diagnostic skills in Penn State’s audiology clinic. All in all, the semester gives students a chance to get a first-hand look at audiology through the eyes of both patient and practitioner.

Although most students don’t find themselves in harm’s way while hearing with only one ear, many students say that this experience changes the way they look at hearing loss. Loud sounds became soft or unheard, such as the thunder for Ference. Students also noticed that, with only one good ear, it became hard to recognize where sounds came from.

image of an ear examination

Students taking Creuz's introduction to audiology course get a first-hand look at audiology through the eyes of both patient and practitioner.

“I was immediately aware of how the plug affected my ability to locate the source of noise. I felt uneasy about crossing the street without my hearing fully functioning—I literally took to holding hands with someone to cross the street at times,” recounts CSD student Tiana Cowan.

The volume of their own voices became hard to regulate, causing many students to feel self-conscious. “When I did participate in the conversations, it was difficult for me to gauge how loudly I was speaking,” says Carly Millan.

The ear plug also made communication extremely difficult.

“I found myself talking less at brunch because I had to make more of an effort to listen to my friends and block out the background noise. I often had to ask my friends to repeat what they were saying,” recounts Millan.

Alyson Quintavalle recalls what a task it was to wash dishes while listening to her friend: “While my friend was telling me a story I had to interrupt her, turn off the faucet, and have her repeat the story from the beginning,” she says. “It was hard to hear her story while the background noise of water was rushing out of the faucet.”

Because of this diminished capacity or confidence in communication, some students reported that they resorted to using emails or text messaging for communication.

Sarah Kate Deatrich, who took the course a previous semester, summarizes how alienating it became using only one ear. “It was hard to tell where sounds are coming from, and I couldn’t keep up with conversations. I just wanted to be alone.”

Deatrich, who plans on pursuing a career in audiology, decided to continue her involvement in the class by being a TA during the fall 2009 semester. As part of this role, she helped students through another major focus of class: diagnosing hearing loss.

During one week of class, students go to Penn State’s Audiology Clinic (part of the Speech, Language, and Hearing Clinic), where they give each other the standard barrage of basic diagnostic tests for hearing loss. This includes using a tympanogram, which measures pressure in the ear and might show signs of fluid or congestion; the audiogram, which tests the loudness and frequency of noise a person can hear (this is done in a sound-proof room with headphones); and the video otoscope, a camera that magnifies the miniscule details of the middle and outer ear onto a TV screen.

Peeking into someone’s ear or showing off the hair and wax of an embarrassed classmate may be interesting and fun for some students, but it’s also very practical, even for students not planning on pursuing a career in audiology (Creuz says that many of the students in her class tend to be more interested in speech or language disorders rather than hearing disorders). Many people who have hearing loss are often misdiagnosed with speech disorders, Creuz says.

She tells a true story to her class that illustrates this. A man went for decades thinking that he had a speech disorder, because that is what he’d been told. He had been through several therapy procedures for this speech disorder—all of which were unsuccessful. Then, while he was in his 50s, someone decided to test his hearing—it was then that the practitioners realized the diagnosis had been wrong all along. He had a hearing disorder, not a speech disorder. A hearing aid fixed everything that had been bothering him almost instantaneously. Ironically, that man had a sister who was an audiologist, and even she did not realize the misdiagnosis.

Because of this, Creuz stresses that “speech diagnoses always start with hearing loss.” And after taking her class, students have a hands-on experience with those diagnostic procedures—and a better understanding of how deafness impacts people.

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Editors: Judy Creuz can be contacted at at jac54@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.