Lip reading to me is as natural as walking. Since I was born with hearing loss, it is quite possible that I began reading lips as an infant. Watching people’s lips form the shapes of consonants greatly increases my comprehension.
But in 2010, when I upgraded to a new pair of powerful hearing aids, I found that I needed to rely less on lip reading. The first moment I put on my new hearing aids, I yelped in pain. I was unprepared for the onslaught of sound. The forced air coming through the heating vents sounded like a gale. The next moment, however, I realized that I could hear my audiologist speak without looking at her lips.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Lip Reading
In middle school, before I was fitted with my first hearing aid, I struggled to hear teachers when they turned their back to the class to scrawl an equation on the blackboard because I could no longer see their lips. And television programs and movies, in which the voices are not perfectly synchronized with lip movements, were and are still a bear for me. (Captioning has greatly increased my comprehension.)
When most people converse, they spend at least some, if not all, of their time looking into the eyes of their fellow conversationalist. Instead, I watch lips, focusing on lip reading. Periodically, I glance up at a person’s eyes to maintain conversation, but then my gaze darts back to the lips. Sometimes I worry that I might appear strange or off-kilter because I am looking slightly down from people’s gaze when they speak.
What I Discovered in People’s Eyes
Once I was fitted with new aids and needed to rely less on lip-reading, I discovered what for me was up to then the largely unseen world of people’s eyes. I was surprised to find that the expressions on people’s eyes did not always match their lips. Some acquaintances sported cheerful smiles, but lurking in their eyes were suppressed resentments or frustrations. Other people, in contrast, frowned with worry, yet reflected in their eyes was a deep empathy or kindness. The realization that up until now my picture of acquaintances had been somewhat incomplete chilled me.
Had I not returned to adult piano lessons after a 25-year hiatus, it is quite likely that I would have delayed upgrading my hearing aids for another few years. I would still be out there, missing not only the lovely resonance of the highest notes on the piano, but also the emotional resonance in people’s eyes. I’m grateful for this second chance.