Actress Rula Lenska explains why she hid her deafness for a decade…
AGED 63 Rula Lenska looks as striking as she has always done, from the elegant figure to the glorious flame-red hair that remains her crowning glory. “I’m lucky that it is as thick as it ever was,” she says.
Any woman would surely say the same but Rula has an additional reason for loving the luxuriant curls that frame her face. For the past seven years her hair has helped conceal a closely-guarded secret: hearing aids in each ear that help her make sense of the sounds around her.
“I have no idea, even now, how my hearing became so damaged,” she says, speaking publicly for the first time about the hearing loss that until a few months ago no more than the half-dozen people closest to her knew about.
“The best guess my specialist has come up with is at some point 20 years or so ago, when I was a very keen scuba diver, I picked up an ear infection that went mostly unnoticed.
“That’s quite common among divers because of the pressure diving at depth puts on the inner ear canal.
“There’s no history of it in my family but about 10 years ago it did become clear to me that I really wasn’t hearing everything that was going on around me, particularly high sounds and in large gatherings where there was a lot of background noise.”
Not to mention on stage, where she has continued to have a flourishing career while appearing on our screens in EastEnders and most recently as mischievous hairdresser Claudia Colby in Coronation Street. A little later this year she will be back on the road again with the touring production of Calendar Girls.
It was while doing this kind of work that the full extent of her hearing loss became apparent to her a decade ago.
“Obviously actors speak clearly and on stage it really isn’t a problem, everyone is quiet and the script takes its course,” says Rula.
“But when it came to rehearsals which so often take place in echoing halls, I often had real difficulty following what was going on. I would sometimes confide in the director but I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t hear too well.”
She feared attitudes towards her might alter if her deafness became generally known.
“There is a real stigma the hard of hearing have to face, particularly women of a certain age. With all the difficulties that face a female actor once you’re past 40, it’s one more problem you don’t want to add to the list.
“So I did a lot of pretending. I did a lot of smiling and nodding and saying ‘Oh, yes’ to people, hoping I’d got away with it but I was aware that I was only picking up every eighth or ninth word.
“It came to the point where I knew I had to do something constructive and about seven years ago I finally decided to go and have a hearing test.”
She discovered she had lost a good deal of her ability to hear sounds in the upper registers, the part of the hearing which helps us filter out background noise and that there was no cure.
In the UK there are an estimated nine-million people living with significant hearing loss: around one in every seven adults, roughly three-quarters aged over 60.
Research by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People suggests that it can take up to 15 years for people who clearly have hearing loss to be tested and that four million people in the UK have undiagnosed hearing loss.
Yet the experts are trying to get the message across that it is better to get tested early and start wearing hearing aids sooner rather than later. This is because getting used to amplified sound is harder if you’ve already become accustomed to a quieter world.
“What I find difficult now is multi-tasking,” explains Rula. “I used to have the telly or radio on, have a conversation and do some household chores all at the same. Now it has to be one at a time.
“Hearing aids, although they are wonderful pieces of technology these days, are not entirely the answer because the sound they bring to your ears is not sound as it was when your ears were young.
“I had to try a lot of different types before I found one that I felt suited me and I discovered this would have been a much easier process if I’d sought help earlier. I can’t stress enough to anyone who thinks they might have hearing loss how important it is to have a hearing test as quickly as possible.
“I have become accustomed to mine but there are times when they amplify the wrong noises too much. But I do remember noticing little, pleasurable sounds I hadn’t heard for a long time, such as birdsong, the crackling of a newspaper, the swishing sound jeans make as they rub together when you walk along.”
Her high-tech digital hearing aids, complete with remote control, are all but invisible with or without that glorious hair. Although she could quite easily have kept her secret, she decided to “out” herself after speaking with fellow Coronation Street star Bill Roache.
“He has only talked about his deafness in recent years, so I told him about my problems.
“It was his suggestion that I help with this year’s Sound Barrier Star Awards, as he did last year, to find someone who has refused to let hearing difficulties get in the way of a full and fulfilling life.
“I decided that it was time to stop trying to hide. The sense of release was wonderful and such a change from struggling to hear and pretending that I could hear.
“And it’s not all bad. I don’t have any trouble getting to sleep wherever I am. I take out the hearing aids and it’s better than cotton wool. When I’m on tour, it’s brilliant to be an actor who is a little hard of hearing.”
By Cheryl Stonehouse: www.express.co.uk