Personal stories from the workplace: Sue the photographer

Hear 2 Work regularly talks to people about their work and their hearing loss to find out how their experiences could help you.

Sue Todd
Sue Todd from Sue Todd Photography.
Sue suffered from chronic ear infections as a child that left her with poor hearing. However, it wasn’t until she was an adult that she was offered a hearing aid and then later a BAHA. Here, Sue talks about her experiences in dealing with clients both as an IT manager and now in her work as a professional photographer (you can find her at Sue Todd Photography), and the confidence her BAHA has given her. She also offers some positive advice for those just starting out in their career.

  • Can you tell me a bit about your hearing loss ie, when it started, how it affects you, what assistive devices you use?

I was born with an ear issue that caused infections and huge pain.  I was in and out of hospital a lot for the first 3 years of my life as a result and lived on antibiotics for the first 7 years.  Doctors hoped a mastoid operation would resolve the issue, but it didn’t. They finally decided to wait and see if it settled down. The issues gradually lessened but the operations and the scar tissue left me with very poor hearing.

I can still remember chronic ear pain, so bad that they had to watch me like a hawk because apparently I discovered that if I hit my head off the wall hard enough it stopped the pain – or maybe it just changed it? I don’t remember that bit thankfully.  I wasn’t allowed to go swimming until I was about 7 as water just made the whole thing worse – I’m still a lousy swimmer and the ear still gets infected if it gets wet.  I suppose I got used to ‘not’ hearing to an extent.

Luckily I’d learnt to read and write very early, long before going to school, because languages later became a problem because I was never sure what the sound was.  I still find new languages or words I’ve not come across before difficult because I’m not sure what I’m hearing and find it hard to remember them correctly.  I struggle with pronunciation of foreign languages because I’m not sure how its meant to sound, that probably sounds silly but when you are aware you probably got it wrong in the first place it makes it all the harder. Strange spellings of common names or foreign names still throw me even when I’ve heard them a couple of times because next time I come across them I have to think them through and I’m never confident of getting them right, because I can’t make out what they sound like.

We’ve all sung along to songs using the words we think we’ve heard, but in my case I could have all the words wrong!

  • What do you do at work exactly?

I’m finally following my dream of working in photography after working in IT for around 14 years.

  • What does your day consist of?

Now my days are filled with either doing product photography in my studio or being out on location covering events, doing portraits, food photography or whatever. Life varies from day to day which I love.  I know a lot of photographers specialise but I hate doing the same thing day in, day out, I need variety. In my free time I’ve generally still got the camera in my hands but I’ll be shooting the flowers and wildlife around us or the view.

  • How does your hearing loss affect you at work?

Depending on the situation it can be hard to catch what is said.  One to one is generally fine, but in a meeting or a busy social situation you have to concentrate so hard to try and catch what people are saying and I think sometimes you can get so fixated on that, that it actually makes it all worse.  I still regularly resort to nodding in agreement and smiling in the hope it was the right response because it feels like you can only ask people to repeat themselves so many times.

People ask me if I lip read and the answer is no. I likely should but I tend to watch people’s eyes because you can read a lot from their facial expressions and I guess I’ve come to rely on that to judge whether I heard and responded correctly.

  • Have you had any issues with work colleagues (have they helped or hindered)?

I was lucky enough to be the boss, so generally no.  Sometimes working with clients especially in IT could be an issue.  I found board meetings very difficult as I had to try so hard to hear what was being said and was always totally exhausted when they were over.  It wasn’t so bad if you could be in the centre of the table but you’d find the odd egotistic individual (generally a man I have to say) who’d try and use it against you.

  • Did you find it hard in the beginning?

I grew up with this so no not really.  It got harder as I got older as after each infection and now with two perforations to the ear drum the hearing has gotten worse. You find yourself dreading social events because you know you won’t be able to follow the conversation once the noise level rises and you end up smiling and nodding, hoping your reaction is correct because you are so tired of saying ‘what was that’, ‘pardon’, ‘could you just repeat that’, and you can’t help but feel the other person must be more fed up with it.

  • What has helped you to succeed in your career?

You just keep going. Sometimes I need some quiet time or a chance to catch up just because it becomes so exhausting trying to hear what people have to say.  I was given a hearing aid some years ago and I remember clearly when they fired it up and told me not to speak initially.  Then they explained that I was about to hear myself properly for the first time and it would be a bit of a shock to the system.  It was!  However the joy of hearing was short lived because I couldn’t use the aid without my ear getting infected.  Because the hearing aid blocked the ear canal, the ear basically got hot and sweaty (doesn’t that sound lovely? NOT!) and then it would become infected.

Then I was put forward for a BAHA at my local hospital.  I was terrified.  All the hospital visits as a child had left me totally terrified of hospitals to the point I’d feel sick and faint. However, my consultant was amazingly patient and sweet.  It took a long while to get me there as I was so dubious about the whole thing.  I wasn’t overly happy about the idea of having a hole drilled in my head, less happy about having to touch the area afterward or having anything at all to do with it.  Their patience and care were just fabulous.  They arranged for me to see other patients who already had BAHAs and they helped me to come to terms with the whole idea and I’m so grateful to them all. I love my BAHA and the difference it makes.

  • What is the most difficult thing for you at work?

Hearing in a group situation or in a social setting is still the most difficult thing.  I’d hoped that with the BAHA I’d finally be able to locate noise too, but I can’t.  So where you may hear a noise, be able to identify it and know what direction its coming from I can’t.  Unless its a very familiar noise that I’ve heard time and time again I won’t recognise it and I certainly won’t know where it is.  That can make you really jumpy because you don’t know if its something trivial or not.

I did get a name wrong very recently. I was shooting family portraits and one of the children was called Mason, I’d not come across this lovely name before and my ears heard Nathan! It took a few attempts from the client to make me aware and I was mortified. However they were lovely and they also had deafness in the family so totally understood.

  • Do you tell your clients up front about your hearing loss?

Only if its appropriate.  Often its immaterial and I don’t deliberately draw attention to it.  You can’t often see it, unless I’ve got my hair pinned up, and on one occasion when I was shooting an event, someone did stop me and ask if I’d mind talking to them about it as one had been suggested for their daughter. I was delighted to try and help with their questions because others had been so good to me in that respect.

  • Are there any other issues at work?

I still hate using the phone.  After years of struggling to hear I still concentrate way too much, to the point where it actually makes it harder.  I dread making a call and getting a foreign call centre (and that can include those where there’s any sort of strong accent, Scottish, Welsh, cockney, Irish…) because I can rarely make out what people are saying.  I remember once having to call a bank’s helpline and being put through to an Indian call centre, I couldn’t make sense of anything the girl said and explained that I was deaf and struggled on the phone and could I please be put through to an English person or someone with no accent only to be told that basically I was a very bad person to discriminate so …… So getting an email even a sales enquiry where they ask for a phone call fills me with dread, but its getting easier I think ….

I’m told now that my hearing, or lack of, should have been picked up when I was a child and that it would have made a huge difference.  As it is I’m having to relearn sounds and its always interesting to hear what the words for a song actually really are as opposed to what I thought they were and have been singing along to for years.  Quietly thankful for once that I can’t sing and don’t because had I sung out loud that would have given way to even more riotous laughter than my singing on its own.

  • And has your BAHA helped you?

My BAHA is fantastic.  In a crowded situation it doesn’t always help, it can pick up all the noise and that can make things tricky but because my hearing will only get worse (certainly it’s never improved) it does make every day life a whole lot easier and its so nice to not always have to ask people to repeat what they just said.  Having said that I don’t always wear it, but if I’m working then I feel lost without it. I’ve also been known to get to the end of the day and snatch it off retreating back to a world of quiet.

I do still avoid the phone if I can, although emails and texts can be taken out of context I find it easier to deal with words written rather than spoken as I can then deal with them in slower time, where listening can make me anxious about whether I’ll hear correctly – which in turn can mean I have to go back later to clarify something.

I had hoped that getting a hearing aid would mean I could sing, as in open my mouth and have something nice sounding come out but sadly that hasn’t happened, and I think I clear a room just by threatening to sing.

Equally its nice in a noisy situation to be able to hit the off button and retreat into my own quiet world.  If I sleep with my good ear to the pillow I don’t hear a thing.

  • Finally, is there one piece of advice that you would give to someone starting out in their career?

Don’t let not being able to hear stop you.  Don’t be afraid to explain that you are deaf, people generally are very understanding, and if they aren’t then they should be.  They’d think very differently if it was them.

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