Hearing Loss: the invisible disability

I noticed an advertisement in the paper the other day for ‘the invisible hearing aid’. The copy emphasized the message ‘no one will know you are deaf’. This kind of message has concerned me for a long time for all kinds of reasons.

I don’t blame hearing aid companies as they are responding to the market which wants ‘invisible hearing aids’. And I understand that. For years I wanted my hearing aids to be invisible too. I was in my early thirties before I felt comfortable telling a stranger that I couldn’t hear. I was almost forty before I had the confidence to talk about my own experiences publicly.

My problem with these advertisements is that they appear to send the message that if you are deaf you will want to hide it or even that you should hide it. There is an assumption in this message that we don’t want others to know that we can’t hear. But it really defeats the purpose. Even with hearing aids, we don’t hear everything. If people don’t know you are deaf, they may think you are a snob, stupid, a poor listener or bored with the conversation. Well perhaps the last might be true at times.

This can hardly be a good thing. But the message is insidious and results in many hearing impaired people hiding their disability. We need to stop this.

Sometimes people will talk to the ‘hearing’ person rather than directly to the person with the hearing loss.

A few think it is a contagious disease and will back away.

Others yell! Sort of like when an English-speaking person visits a country where the language spoken is not English. They think all they need to do is to speak more loudly and others will understand what they are saying. Yelling doesn’t help in either case.

All of these things have happened to me and all because others do not understand what hearing loss means. It isn’t that they don’t care – far from it. It is just that those of us with hearing loss may not feel comfortable explaining because we have heard the message not to talk about it. We need to get over it.

I was lucky enough to get over this hurdle a long time ago and it amazes me that the message that we should hide our hearing loss is still so prevalent. Otherwise manufacturers of hearing aids wouldn’t emphasize the invisibility factor.

When I received the external processor for my cochlear implant I was very disappointed that it was not the turquoise colour I had ordered but a basic brown that was difficult to see in my reddish-brown hair. A few weeks ago someone said to me, “Oh, you can’t even see it, isn’t that great!” The message persists.

Before I offer a few ideas, I have one more story to share with you. I was giving a talk about the impact of hearing loss on day-to-day life at a conference several years ago for people working with others who have disabilities of all kinds. I told my story and after the talk several people came up to ask me questions. The last person asked me this: “Doesn’t it bother you when people talk behind your back?” I must admit that I was nonplussed and didn’t think of a zinger of a response until I was on the train on my way home: “Of course it doesn’t bother me because I can’t hear them!” LOL.

What can we do? Here are some of my thoughts.

As we age and because of all those rock concerts, more and more people will suffer hearing loss. We need to educate ourselves and others about hearing impairment. It is a complex disability and deserves study.

Those of us with hearing loss who are comfortable with that loss need to speak up and share our stories and tell others what works.

We need to make it easier for people to talk about their hearing impairment by asking questions that convey interest and encouragement such as ‘Can you tell me what it is like to be deaf?’ ‘How does your hearing aid work? and ‘What can you hear?’. The answers will result in concrete, usable knowledge.

And we really need to make hearing aids for adults sexy I think. Hard to do you might suppose but if you were to check out any of the kids’ sections of hearing aid companies you would find a myriad of jazzy colours, both solids and patterns, for behind-the-ear hearing aids way beyond the basic beige, including a clear plastic cover that shows the inner workings of a hearing aid. Very cool.

Once we have a critical mass of people talking about their hearing impairment and educating their friends and neighbours along the way, there may not be as much of a need for ‘invisible hearing aids’ except perhaps for ease of wear and in cases of physical challenges. And newcomers to this unique family won’t be so afraid to tell others that they can’t hear.


4 responses to “Hearing Loss: the invisible disability

  1. Such a good message Rosemary. It’s nothing to hide. There’s so much more to “being you”. And we cannot know if someone has a hearing problem because you look “normal”! Talking about it or wearing a bright jazzy hearing aid (which I love!), helps others be considerate — as we would for example in opening a door for someone using a walker. Thanks for being open about this. You’re the best!

  2. With my hearing aids, I often hear too much peripheral noise to understand what friends are saying, and now just lean close and tell them.my problem. Thank goodness everyone has been understanding, at least so far as I have heard!

  3. This is such an important message, Rosemary! It’s also a wake-up call, not just to those impaired, but to the hearing. Excellent insights.

  4. Great message.

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