Posted by Positive Aging SourceBook on 12/23/2020

Hearing is Believing

Hearing is Believing

"He wants to hear my voice. He wants to hear me laugh,” explained Kathi Mestayer, who uses a captioned telephone provided by Virginia Relay to communicate with her 93-year old father. “It’s a more meaningful type of communication when you hear someone’s voice. It’s more like you’re there with them.” Kathi, who has lived with hereditary hearing loss since her early 40s, uses Virginia Relay for most of her phone communications. Virginia Relay employs live captioning assistants combined with the latest voice recognition software to provide high-quality telephone captioning services. Users see the spoken words displayed on a screen on their phone just moments after they are said. By offering a diverse array of services, Virginia Relay enables people who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind, or have difficulty speaking to communicate with anyone who uses a standard phone. Relay services are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with no limit on the number or length of calls a user may make. All services and equipment are provided through state and federal programs and are delivered to qualified consumers at no cost.

Across Miles and Through Pandemics

When Kathi talks with her father, he uses his own Relay device as well. Even with a cochlear implant, his hearing loss is profound. Using their individual captioned phones, Kathi and her father see the words of the other person displayed on a screen
as they hear them. “I could not talk to my father on the phone at all without a captioning phone,” Kathi noted. Kathi lives in Williamsburg, Va., and her father lives in Valley Forge, Penn., so maintaining contact via the phone is important. Especially during the current COVID-19 crisis, it is not possible to visit—or to know when visiting will be an option. In fact, Kathi was able to maintain regular contact with her father using Virginia Relay even after she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and throughout her  recovery at home.

Losing Her Hearing and Finding Her Calling

As a young girl growing up in New Jersey, Kathi learned about hearing loss early. Her father began losing his hearing in his early 40s. “I remember him having those old-fashioned microphones that would hang around his neck, and the hearing aids that attached to his eyeglasses,” Kathi noted. Kathi, who is one of four girls in her family, explained that she and her sisters grew accustomed to raising their voices and ensuring that their father was looking at them and listening before speaking. “All of those things you do to talk to hard of hearing people were just natural to us,” she said. Kathi attended college in New Jersey and got her first job after graduation at Prudential. When the company transferred her to Chicago, she met her husband, Mac. A physicist, he was working at the University of Chicago and was Kathi’s sister’s office-mate. Her sister decided that the two needed to meet. “It turned out she was right,” Kathi recalled with a laugh. The couple was married in Chicago but later moved to upstate New York when Mac got a new job. A studio art major, Kathi has always spent her free time crafting artwork, but she has never sold her pieces. Instead, her long and varied career path led her to another artistic pursuit: writing. While living in upstate New York, Kathi found her dream job. She was a writer for a quarterly publication at the Cornell Center for Environmental Research. “I loved it so much,” she recalled. “I could insinuate myself into any faculty member’s office and ask all of my dumb questions. And they would answer them patiently. I learned about bugs, plants, climate, acid rain—so many different topics.” When Mac got a job offer at an accelerator lab in Virginia, they settled in Williamsburg. Kathi attended the business school at William & Mary and received an MBA. Following her graduation, she worked for several years as a management consultant for public sector environmental organizations. For Kathi, it did not come as a surprise when she started losing her own hearing shortly after her 42nd birthday. However, even for her, it was an adjustment to start wearing hearing aids. “I had a funny moment at a party when a close friend pulled me aside and reminded me that people really liked it when I wore my hearing aids,” Kathi recalled. “She did me a favor because I needed to hear that.” “At some point, I started to have trouble facilitating meetings with large numbers of people in the room who were kind of far from me,” Kathi said. As her hearing loss made her work more challenging, she decided to change her focus.Kathi become an advocate and an expert on hearing loss. She is now a staff writer for Hearing Health Magazine and a member of the advisory committee of the Hearing Loss Association of America Greater Richmond Chapter. She just completed her two terms as an Advisory Board member for the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. And, this spring, she participated in William and
Mary’s Office of Community  Engagement’s program for people with disabilities. In her spare time, she is a Virginia Master Naturalist. She recently gave a presentation to blind students on common bird calls.

Connecting and Communicating

Kathi is able to keep working and stay connected with her family because of technologies like Virginia Relay’s captioned telephone service. “I like getting emails, and my dad even likes getting emails, but it’s just really different when you can hear someone’s voice,” she reiterated. That is why Kathi would like Virginia Relay’s technologies to be more widely available. “I think people in hospitals and in senior living communities could really benefit from this technology,” she said. “Otherwise, they run the risk of being cut off from the rest of the world because they can’t hear using a regular phone.” “Captioned telephones can help individuals gain independence,” added Eric Alvillar, Outreach Coordinator for Virginia Relay. “Many individuals with hearing loss don’t feel comfortable using a regular phone, and they may be embarrassed to admit that. This technology allows them to easily read what is being said on the other end of the line.”

An Early Loss, A Lifelong Gain

Hearing loss has always been a part of Kathi’s life. “Everyone in my family has hereditary sensory neural hearing loss, which is the same kind of hearing loss you get as you get older,” she explained. “But we get it young. We’re precocious.” Over the  years, Kathi has openly embraced the use of hearing aids and other technology to help her father and other relatives—and to handle her own hearing loss. She has also become a vocal advocate for others, encouraging consumers to overcome the stigma associated with hearing loss and to embrace the technologies that can help them regain or maintain independence, including Virginia Relay. While hearing loss implies a shortcoming, Kathi has made it her mission to help others who face this condition gain acceptance and gain access. And she is gaining followers—and fans—every day.

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