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This month is Hearing Awareness Month. It puts a spotlight on hearing health and aims to raise awareness of the experiences of the 880,000-plus Kiwis who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

District deployment co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Kevin (KJ) Stewart’s family noticed his hearing loss long before he did.

To get her husband’s attention, Detective Senior Sergeant Sally Patrick would have to stand directly in front of him and make sure he was looking at her before she started speaking.

“She had to speak really clearly. If she was behind me, more than likely I would not hear her,” says KJ, who is also the Police Association’s Hastings committee secretary.

His nine-year-old daughter would have to yell for him to hear.

“I was also starting to slur my speech because I couldn't hear myself talk properly. And I was having difficulty at meetings. I'd have to sit up the front and really concentrate, look at the person who was talking and almost lip read while trying to hear what they were saying. It became quite stressful.”

KJ believes the damage to his hearing started during his 10-year stint in the New Zealand Defence Force. “I was a combat engineer, so we were blowing shit up. And way back in the 80s, there was no such thing as hearing protection.”

When he joined Police in 1997, and later the AOS in 2003, hearing protection was used during firearms training but not operationally. He believes this is when the damage “really started occurring”.

Annual hearing tests instituted by Police started to show a gradual decline in KJ’s hearing while he was in the AOS. Due to his work history, a claim was put into ACC but it didn’t meet the specific criteria.

Fortunately, KJ had Police Health Plan insurance and, along with a 2-for-1 deal that his audiologist was running at the time, he was able to buy a pair of ”flash” hearing aids.

“The hearing aids themselves are just so small and unobtrusive – just a tiny little tube that goes into my ear. It has been a game changer.”

After having them fitted, the audiologist told KJ to call as soon as he arrived home and let him know “the one thing you heard that you've never heard before”.

“One of the first things I heard was my shoe scrunching on stones. Then, during the drive home, I went, ‘Oh my god’. I rang them and said, ‘My indicator!’ I could hear the tick tock, tick tock. I’d always thought it was broken.”


The low down

According to the National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, hearing loss affects around 11% of New Zealand’s workforce – and it is increasing. The number of people affected by hearing loss worldwide is expected to double over the next 30 years.

Hearing loss and other hearing issues can develop at any time and for many reasons, such as age, noise exposure or injury. The New Zealand Audiological Society says that without intervention such as hearing aids, the loss can lead to social isolation and is sometimes linked to cognitive decline.

Safer People medical services team manager Andrea Adams says there are different types of hearing loss and they can affect people differently. It can depend on where in your ear the damage is and how people are able to compensate for any loss.

Andrea says for some police where there has been exposure to loud noises in previous jobs, such as with the Defence Force, a baseline hearing test is completed pre-employment to check for any existing occupational noise-induced hearing loss.

“We then have health monitoring that identifies people who are at more significant risk of occupational effects on the hearing – case in point, your tactical option trainers, because they're handling firearms routinely. They will get annual health monitoring of their hearing completed to check that we have not got deterioration or signs of noise-induced hearing loss from the role.”

When KJ told his supervisors he was getting hearing aids, he says his colleagues and supervisors were supportive – some didn’t realise he had a hearing problem.

He believes that is down to the fact he would try extra hard to listen or subconsciously rely on lip reading to figure out what they were saying. He didn’t always get it right.

“They most probably thought, you know, is he just tired or not concentrating?”

Hear this!

KJ works in the Eastern District Command Centre. It’s often sensory overload, he says.

Radios and phones are going off, there a lot of screens to monitor and people coming in and out. KJ says he can do his job better now “because I can hear what the hell's going on”.

While there are no national guidelines on when and how often people should have their hearing checked, Andrea says hearing is a “sense you really are going to want to maintain so making the investment and getting your hearing checked is well worth your while”.

KJ encourages anyone who is worried about their hearing to get it tested.

“We can't do our job without being able to hear people around us and people that we deal with. I now know how bad it was and how it affected people, especially those who are closest to me.

“No-one likes a deaf bloke who can do something about it.”


Do I need a hearing test?

You should talk to your doctor or arrange a hearing check if some of the following apply to you:

  • You often need to ask people to repeat something.
  • You have trouble understanding a conversation or mishear people in a group or when there’s background noise.
  • You think people are mumbling, or not speaking clearly.
  • You need to turn up the volume on the TV to hear it comfortably or others say it’s too loud.
  • You tend to avoid some social situations because background noise makes it hard to hear conversations.
  • You feel tired after trying to listen or have a conversation.
  • You need to move closer to a speaker to hear what is being said.
  • You need to see people’s faces to understand what they’re saying.
  • You find it difficult to know where sounds are coming from.

Source: Healthify He Puna Waiora

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