British Columbia·Point of View

I'm a sound technician. Losing my hearing was devastating

I hid my hearing loss because I feared losing my career in the music industry, writes Swann Barrat. Who would hire a deaf technician?

Stigma surrounding hearing loss fueled more anxiety on top of my grief

I hid my hearing loss because I feared losing my career in the music industry, writes Swann Barrat. Who would hire a deaf technician? (Jon Healy Photography)

This is an opinion column by Swann Barrat, who is a professional sound technician in Vancouver. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

My job is to listen — to hear the intricacies of sound, to mix beautiful pieces, and to hear the things that an average person wouldn't even hear. That's why losing my hearing was one of the things I feared the most as a professional sound technician. But it happened to me anyway.

I was diligent about protection since the early days of my career, whether I was mixing eclectic open mics in Vancouver's Cafe Deux Soleils or hazy Psych Nights at the Biltmore Cabaret. I went on my first tour as a sound technician in 2011, and by the end of that year, I noticed I had ringing in my right ear that would not go away. I blamed it on my job. Lots of techs have tinnitus, and I thought it wasn't a big deal. 

Four years later, I realized I couldn't follow conversations easily, and I relied on lip reading without even noticing it. I was only 30 years old and if my hearing loss came from being exposed to loud volume, then I was the one to blame. After all, I was the one controlling the sound levels at the shows. I felt ashamed and in denial. I had been avoiding getting a hearing test, but my doctor referred me to a specialist. 

I was diagnosed with a genetic condition called otosclerosis, which causes progressive hearing loss and tinnitus. The specialist told me my best option was to wear hearing aids. Since I was still in my 30s, he was confident my brain would adapt. But knowing the condition evolved differently for every patient and that I could wake up one day with profound hearing loss, I was devastated. 

I had worked hard to be where I was as a sound technician, a job that I knew I wanted to do since I started going to shows as a teenager. My hearing was what I relied on the most, and it was failing me. I was terrified to talk to people about it. Who would hire a deaf sound technician?

Would my peers start second guessing my work if they knew I had hearing loss? Over the years, I had witnessed comments about musicians or sound technicians who showed signs of hearing loss ("Their amp is so loud, they must be deaf." "Can't the tech hear this feedback? Time to retire!"). So I kept it mostly to myself and some close friends.

Although hearing aids drastically improved my quality of life, I lost a lot of self confidence at work. Because hearing aids are designed for speech — not so much for music and even less for concerts — they make background noise quieter. In a concert setting, that means the hearing aid would constantly try to adjust levels of what it thought was background noise and that would really throw me off, especially when the crowd was cheering. 

Although hearing aids drastically improved her quality of life, Barrat writes she lost self confidence at work. (Swann Barrat)

I found support through my audiologist, who helped me set up different programs for my hearing aids so I could do my job well, but I didn't know how to talk about it with my colleagues. I didn't know of any other sound technician who worked with hearing aids. I still don't. 

I was self conscious about my hearing aids and always made sure they were well hidden behind my hair. Then one day, my secret came out. 

I was on tour with Canadian songwriter Jill Barber in 2019 when she saw me change my hearing aids batteries. It's something I'd always try to do in secrecy. But she was supportive and understanding, and that gave me the courage to open up more. In the past year, I ended up telling more bands and venues that I worked with. Their support helped me change my relationship with my hearing loss and allow me to uncover my feelings toward it. 

When concerts got cancelled in mid-March, the time I suddenly had on my hands allowed me to create space for this grief. I realized I had my own internalized ableist beliefs and it was time to confront them. I used to think that having hearing loss was making me inadequate for my job. I felt like I wasn't whole, like a piece of myself was missing. But over time, I now believe that getting treated early on by wearing hearing aids helped me become a better sound technician, and that I am just as skilled as anyone else in the field. 

It's a challenging time for live music, with the industry effectively on pause. But perhaps we can use this time positively and open up the conversation about hearing loss and the struggles associated with it so our community can become more compassionate, inclusive and accessible. 

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