The Challenge of Being Blind in a Loud Environment

A woman with shoulder-length dark hair with her hands covering her ears. Her eyes are shut and she is looking slightly down.

Those who know me would agree that I’m a fairly outgoing person. I enjoy being with people and spending time in a group environment. More than that, I love listening to loud music and can think of few things more fun than being surrounded by the thud of loud rock music on a dance floor.

And yet…

I recently found myself in a most uncomfortable situation. I was at a family birthday supper in a restaurant, sitting at the end of a long rectangular table that rested against a balcony. The restaurant was busy, and noisy.

As the evening wore on, the people in the restaurant around me became more and more animated, either due to post-work relaxation or alcohol. It became harder and harder for me to make myself heard by anyone at our table. Similarly, I struggled to hear what anyone was trying to say to me. No matter how hard I tried to do so, there was really no way I could participate in the conversation.

So I just sat there, nibbled on my pizza and sipped on my glass of wine. I was marginalised and isolated by the constant babble of sound that shut me off from everyone else.

My family were aware that I was less talkative than usual and kept checking in to see that I was okay. At least, that’s what I think they were doing – I wasn’t really sure. My husband, who was sitting beside me, kept trying to keep me informed of what was being said, but by then I had more or less zoned out.

So, the whole evening was something of a trial.

With all this time on my hands I began to pick apart why I was struggling so much in the noisy environment. Usually, my keen sense of hearing is an asset to me. It enables me to be aware of all that is happening around me, which can be really useful when navigating the world without sight. It’s also a useful tool to help me find objects when I drop them, as I can generally hear well enough to pinpoint the place that the dropped item hits the ground.

However, this also means I struggle to focus my hearing. I find it impossible to tune out unnecessary sound and focus on only those sound vibrations that are relevant to me at the time. I often say that my ears are constantly set to full volume and everything blasts into my ears with the same high volume. It’s one of the reasons that I become anxious in railway stations, and why I struggle to differentiate the sound of passing cars when there is a strong wind blowing – it’s hard to distinguish only certain sounds that I can make use of to guide me. And I simply can’t find a way to turn down the volume on my ears.

All of which explains why that family supper was so hard for me. I felt literally encased in a bubble of noise that I could not overcome. I was unable to focus on what my family were saying and tune out the noise generated by everything else around me. A sighted person would be able to lip read to help distinguish conversations – I wonder how many people are aware that they are actually doing this – but I didn’t have that option. So I was encased by sound, with no tools to help me converse.

If the circumstances had been different in any one of a number of ways, I would probably have been able to cope. If we had been seated at a round table, it would have been easier for me to hear what my family were saying because I would have been closer to them, rather than being on the end of a long table with only one person close enough to engage with me. If there had been more material in the room to absorb some of the noise, it would have exposed me to less ambient sound. If our table hadn’t been right next to the balcony, I would have had a measure of protection from some of the noise generated from downstairs and the quieter overall levels would have made it easier for me to engage. But with everything aligning in the way that it did, I simply could not cope.

Which is a shame, because it sounded like everyone was having a good evening.

On the positive side, my pizza was amazing, as was the service. So I’ll definitely go back, provided I can sit at a different table next time.

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