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The COVID-19 Pandemic and Technology

By

Helen Pitcher

Helen talks about her experience in the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of technology.

One of the most interesting, and perhaps largely unappreciated aspects of hearing disability is the ability to switch between sound and silence. It gives me the opportunity to switch off the noisy world around me. Being able to escape is vital for my sanity! At times, only politeness to others stops me from escaping unbearable noise. Many hearing people are almost oblivious to this intense noise! They do not realise how loud or pervasive it is simply because they cannot switch off.

If you ask people which of their five senses they would not willingly forgo, hearing and sight invariably top the list. It is no wonder because our twenty first century lifestyle dictates almost complete dependence on both hearing and sight. We are reliant on mobile devices for communication, information and navigation. In the home, most living areas are dominated by a big television screen with audio-visual equipment and digital games in shelves underneath or next to it. In the bedroom, we use our digital devices to keep in touch with family and to read e-books. In the workplace, technology predominates as well. It has changed enormously since I first worked in an office. Instead of a typing pool, every worker has his or her own workstation with a computer screen and keyboard. Work is delivered and collected online. In retail, a computer sits in place of the cash register. Detailed information about each purchase is taken. This simplifies record keeping both for the business and the buyer.

Close up photo of a plant (taken by Helen).
Image above: Close up photo of a plant (taken by Helen).

On the commuter run, almost everyone has headphones on. Are they aware of traffic? Can they hear the oncoming train or bus? Are they aware of their surroundings when they are listening so intently to music or a podcast or even a book? Can they see the beauty in the landscape?

Even the sports fields are not immune. Electronic equipment beneath the surface of the tennis court lets the umpire know whether the ball is in or out. Mostly, in the large field sports of football, soccer or hockey, there are no such innovations, but even there the computer has a quiet presence. Linesmen wear headphones and microphones which link them to the control room. There they can indicate whether a ball is in or out of play. In the pandemic world, crowds are not permitted in the stadiums to watch their favourite sports. Instead, canned crowd sounds are played at appropriate moments to keep the players motivated.

Every aspect of our lives is controlled by vision and sound, whether it is around us, through headphones or on screen.

This is not new. But it is the COVID-19 pandemic that has made me acutely aware just how much our lives have become so controlled in this way. This rather surreal time has been both a blessing in disguise and a cause of frustration for me. While I had grown up using technology to hear, it has only been in recent months that I have needed to depend on more technology than ever. I use it to know when someone is at my door, when I receive a text or email, when something is boiling over in the kitchen or burning. Living alone as I do, it is necessary for my wellbeing to be surrounded by technology. My family know that if I fall, someone will be alerted to my plight.

When I was young, the only remotely technical thing in my life was my hearing aid. A silver, aluminium rectangular box which nestled inside my bra and connected to my ear by a flesh coloured, twisted cord and earpiece. I was luckier than most people, because if there was a problem with the hearing aid, Dad could usually fix it. I did not really enjoy having something that was so obvious, but by the same token I knew and accepted it as part of who I was. Today, I have two almost invisible cochlear implants that are tucked behind my ears. Developments in technology have allowed me to live each day to the best of my ability. I am writing this on an iPad and not a typewriter. I communicate with family and friends via a mobile phone, laptop or iPad. I make appointments with my GP, order my medication and groceries digitally. A watch watches over me and my movements. Should I fall, it will immediately send for help should I require it. Thanks to technology, I am now able to live alone, secure in the knowledge that if something happens, I have the means of calling for help. I live alone, but I am not alone.  

The one thing all these devices do not give me, that I crave right now, is the ability to hold someone I love, to look into their eyes and to talk about mundane everyday things. To have them sit right next to me and know all is well. Instead, I must be content with seeing them on a small screen and having short chats or send text messages back and forwards. Social distancing requirements dictates we do not hug, meaning that touch is denied.

It is ironic that this pandemic has been the instrument that has allowed me to communicate on an equal playing field to everyone else; and at the same time it has isolated me. I crave physical contact, the one thing we are instructed to abstain from. I also need to be able to speak to my doctor, my music therapist, and Pilates instructor face to face. My one and only attempt to talk to my GP online was an abject failure, forcing me to see other doctors who are not familiar with my case history.

Landscape photo taken by Helen, including wild mushrooms, moss and water in a forrest like environment.
Image above: Landscape photo taken by Helen, including wild mushrooms, moss and water in a forrest like environment.

My music therapy and Pilates sessions have been more successful. Both women are so very patient and speak clearly so I know what is being asked of me. With the addition of extra technology, I have been able to participate more easily than we ever expected. However, even there there are sacrifices. Sam and I love playing duets together, but we are not able to do this due to the sound delay in Zoom. Sam, instead, has decided to challenge me in other ways. She is helping me to have more trust in what I hear, by getting me to sing. This is rather unnerving as it is the one thing I have always been told to not do.

Both Simmone and I are also pleasantly surprised by how well our Pilates sessions have worked. Simmone has personal experience of disability, so she is very aware of how deafness impacts my ability to hear. By using different means, she has been able to give me the support and guidance as I work through the exercises she is giving me. I miss, though, her gentle guiding hands.

I have always been guided by touch by my family and friends. They let me know if someone is talking to me by a nudge in the ribs. They give a side hug when they see something is becoming a little overwhelming in reassurance. A gentle tap on the hand tells me that it is okay. Touch has been a huge part of my life and to be deprived of it at a time when it is most needed is starvation to my spiritual and mental health.

In some ways people are becoming more aware just how much they use their sense of hearing in their everyday lives. When sound on Zoom is impacted, they suddenly realise how difficult it is to communicate and what it is like to rely on text to speak with each other. They are experiencing just a smidgeon of what it is like to have a hearing disability. On Facebook, I am seeing more comments about the difficulty to get the message across. People remark how much harder it is to articulate their thoughts online clearly and accurately. In recent days, there have been a spate of comments about how easy it is to say something online that unwittingly is hurtful to another reader. Things that can be spoken are suddenly not so easy to say.  

Photo of a room in Helen's house set up for music therapy over zoom. Photo includes a laptop sitting on a small table (left), music notes on a stand (right) Helen's Mollenhauer treble and   Moeck soprano recorders on a stool (middle).
Image above: Photo of a room in Helen's house set up for music therapy over Zoom. Photo includes a laptop sitting on a small table (left), music notes on a stand (right) Helen's Mollenhauer treble and   Moeck soprano recorders on a stool (middle).

Talking to family and friends online is a completely different experience to talking face to face. You only have the face to watch; no body movements are visible. Gestures you are used to seeing are suddenly invisible. You find yourself wondering did they really mean this, or did they mean that? My family have become a little more aware how much I rely on those gestures, and ensure they sit back sufficiently so I can see their hands and upper body.

While I have been using modern technology for a number of years now, it is only now that I am accessing technology that is designed to allow a cochlear implantee to take part. A smoke alarm is a sentinel watching for the slightest whiff of smoke. Should this happen, a strobe will be set off in my lounge room, while in my bedroom, a pad will vibrate my pillow and bed. Beside my front door is a video doorbell. Ever watchful of any visitor, wanted or unwanted, it sends a signal to both iPhone and iPad there is someone at the door.

How different life was when I was a young mum! I had no baby cry alarms, special doorbells, smoke alarms or alarm clocks. I relied on my husband for almost everything. If my friends came to visit, they would come around the back and let themselves in. I often knew they were coming and left the door open for them. My parents in law kept a watchful eye on me while my husband was at work to ensure I was okay. My aunt and uncle lived in the next suburb across and were another amazing support for me. They doted on my first child and she loved nothing better than to be with them.

As my family grew, life became increasingly difficult, but things became fraught when my son was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy. Because his seizures were frequent, I had to keep him nearby so I could monitor him. The local Lions Club sponsored a support dog, Andy, for me and that was a life changer. He was trained to tell me when my son had a seizure and would eventually be honoured with an award when his training proved to save David’s life. Andy also alerted me to oven timers, alarm clocks, telephones and doorbells. You could say he was my original piece of technology!

Looking back over the use of technology in my life, I am incredibly grateful I can use so much technology today. It helps me to live the best life possible, and to live it well and fruitfully. My hope is I can pay forward the support and encouragementI have received over the years as a way of saying thank you. I only wish my father could have seen the many changes in hearing technology and support!

Of course, much of the technology I use today would not have been possible if it had not been for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Assistive technology is rightly expensive and so many of the devices I use would have been far beyond my ability to purchase. I know once I am used to the new technology that now surrounds me, my life will be much more balanced.

But all the technology in the world will not be a substitute for a human touch, a hug or face to face contact. It does not do away with that desire to escape back into a world of silence, where I can hear myself think, where I can, at last, relax and renew my spirit.

Photo of Helen (right) with her elderly mother (left) sitting down at an airport.
Image above: photo of Helen (right) with her mother (left) sitting down at an airport.

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This story is tagged under:

Life Choices
Taking Part
Sex and Your Body
Safety and violence
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