The surreal experience of sensing the world around me

Disclosure: I am one of the Customer Support Representatives at Neosensory and I had the opportunity to test Buzz before I joined the company. My experiences and opinions are my own. 

I am a third generation Deaf, currently with severe-profound hearing loss. That means I am not a stranger to the various assistive technologies that have been made available over the years. 

From bed shakers to hearing aids and TTDs to videophones, I have seen so many technologies that I tend to be a bit skeptical when new ones pop up. However, as someone who is proud to be Deaf, I still try to keep an open mind and try new technologies that may enhance my quality of life.

Growing up Deaf 

When I was young, I remember seeing some kids wear a vibrotactile device. I was extremely curious about the vibrations it emitted. I wasn’t eligible for one because at the time, I had mild hearing loss. 

I was given a school loaner hearing aid that constantly gave me headaches. I was eventually given a headphone and microphone that made my headaches even worse. I was constantly bullied and made fun of because these devices made me look different and not the “norm”. I put up with these various attempts because I didn’t know any better.

Life went on throughout my middle and high school years. Eventually, I forgot about the vibration marvel I saw when I was little. I didn’t attempt to get my first set of hearing aids until after high school. And since then, I’ve been at odds with technology that attempts to “fix” something that cannot and does not need to be “fixed”.

Much to the disappointment of advocates, I’ve had some strong opinions that hearing aids and cochlear implants do not “fix” the underlying issue of hearing loss. At best, I felt that they offer nothing more than a reprieve and a feeling of belonging to a world some people thought they’d lost and needed.

A new way to experience sound

Years later, I came across a company that sold something akin to the vibrotactile device I had seen back when I was a kid. It was called Neosensory Buzz. 

Because of my frustration with technologies that attempt to fix my hearing loss, I was skeptical at first. However, when I first put on Buzz, I was giddy. I had never felt sound in a way that bypassed my hearing loss. Sound came to me as a sense of touch when I tested Buzz. When I took it off, I was hooked and needed to feel it more.

On the way home, I recalled my preference to feel music growing up rather than relying on my ears that seemed to work on and off at their own discretion. Every time music played, I would put my hands on either wood or metal to feel the rhythm that blasted from the speakers. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave me a sense of what was the intended emotion behind the music.

Learning to feel my environment with Buzz

I eventually got my very own Buzz. Since day one, I’ve worn Buzz nearly every day. The first few days were overwhelmingly difficult, I admit. I couldn’t figure out who or what was making the vibrations on my wrist. 

One of the most challenging moments was when I was still getting used to the idea of “vibration as sound” on a Zoom conference call with hearing people. Everyone was talking without missing a beat, and I thought my Buzz was going to literally buzz right through my wrist. Later, after getting used to my Buzz, the Zoom environment was very different. It was vibrant, full of sounds to explore with magical delight.

Eventually, I began to notice patterns. Not only patterns of how people talk, but patterns in everyday things – water coming out of the faucet, a door opening and closing, a phone ringing, footsteps unique to specific individuals, and a car idling at a stoplight.

Just as it takes dedication to learn another language (or two), it takes nearly the same dedication to relearn how to recognise vibrations that occur in any environment. At first, I needed to look around for the sound to recognize what the vibrations were. After about 2 months, recognizing the vibrations became automatic for me. I knew when my wife was calling out “babe”, when my daughter was banging on the glass door, if my cats were yowling or my dogs were running across the floor, or if people were talking. 

It was a mind jarring experience to actually feel how much people actually talked. It was pattern recognition and I finally got used to what the sounds were.

Just when I thought I got the hang of recognizing patterns in my environment, something new always got the best of me. I was always curious and would seek out the source of this vibration and burn the pattern to memory. For example, the feeling of a motorcycle approaching before my eyes could see it is absolutely surreal.

Life with Buzz

Although I’m aware of the mixed emotions regarding the use of technology to enhance the lives of d/Deaf people, I’m at peace with the idea now as everything finally makes sense. By everything, I don’t mean the answer to life and everything (42, of course!). But I feel a natural, connected sensation perhaps similar to a mathematical genius that finally learns to love classical music by feeling alone. That sensation is everything. 

I feel oddly content knowing that I can feel my environment almost like a bat uses sonar to navigate. While I haven’t attempted to do something so drastic, knowing that every sound has a pattern and now having the ability to recognise it instantly makes me happier than you can imagine.

Every technology made available is not perfect and it is solely up to each individual to determine if it works for their lives. For now, I’ll continue to seek out patterns in this new frontier.

By Adam Skelton, Customer Service Representative

Adam is a customer service representative at Neosensory. He hosts regular webinars where you can learn more about Buzz and if it could be right for you, or how to get the most out of the Buzz you already own. Sign up to learn more about our upcoming webinars.