By Terry Golson
Forty years ago I was a teenager with a mild hearing loss. An audiologist offered to fit me with bulky, ugly hearing aids. I said No thanks. But my loss was progressive and in my mid-twenties I finally got a hearing aid. It was a large plastic shell that filled the ear. It was uncomfortable and whistled from feedback, but it enabled me to hear. I wore it.
I wore my hair long and covered the aids. They were ugly and I didn’t want to have to talk about my disability unless I brought it up first.
My hearing worsened so that even with aids I struggled. I was constantly challenged in how to function with it. I wasn’t embarrassed by my loss, and I didn’t believe that people would think less of me because of it, but that didn’t lessen how difficult it was to live with a hearing loss. I’d tell people that I had trouble hearing, but it’s actually quite difficult for people to change how they speak. Some would project better for a word or two, but then resort back to their quiet voices. Early on in my loss I heard well enough to fill in the blanks. But, as my hearing declined, I couldn’t catch up. I’d miss half a sentence and nod in agreement, or I’d think that I understood something, but later would find out that I’d misheard. Also, like many people with hearing loss, it was easier to talk rather than to listen and so I would dominate a conversation, or would come across as rude because I missed the verbal clues as to when to enter and to end an interaction.
I was self-aware enough to recognize that this was happening. Eventually, I no longer cared if people saw my aids, in fact, I hoped that if they did they would speak more clearly. I wore my hair short, but no one noticed the aids. My hearing loss continued to worsen. I switched to behind-the-ear devices. My ability to engage in conversation declined. Work options shrunk. I felt socially inept, visibly I came across as incompetent because of missed communication. Whatever judgements people were making about me, it was because of the behavior that the hearing loss caused, not what they saw in my ears. I became even more open about my hearing loss. I discovered that once others understood what I was coping with, that they were generous and helpful. It wasn’t what was in my ears that caused any stigma – it was when people didn’t know that the aids were there!
No one thought less of me because of the devices I wore. This is truer now than ever before. Look around – most people have some sort of electronics attached to their heads. I now have cochlear implants. I still have short hair. People rarely notice them, but if they do, they don’t know what they are. Once, a stranger asked me about my “telephone.” I’ve had teenagers tell me that my CIs are really cool. The only people I’ve met who believe that there is a stigma to using hearing aids are the ones who wear them. A friend of mine has always hidden her disability because she worried that being open about it would impact on how people perceive her at her job. She’s a high-level manager at a world-renowned research lab. Recently a woman joined her team. At the first meeting this new hire announced that she wore hearing aids and there were times during communication that she would need help. No one blinked. These are people used to working with technology. They were interested and helpful. It took my friend aback. All of those years of struggling with her loss alone had been unnecessarily difficult.
I understand not wanting to show off one’s aids. I don’t want my hearing loss to be the first thing that one notices about me. Also, I’m vain enough to care that my CI’s are not beautiful. They’re the color of office furniture. But, there is hope. Another friend, Karen, recently upgraded her hearing aids to devices that are sleek and stylish. They are a vibrant blue to match her eyes. She says that her new aids are beautiful, and she’s right. Karen is 83 years old. Her hearing loss and her hearing aids have no stigma - not in her mind, and not to anyone around her. She’s a noted scientist and, because her devices enable her to stay in the hearing world, she continues to speak at conferences and is a mentor to many.
So let’s lay the idea of the stigma of wearing hearing aids to rest once and for all. It’s life without the aids that brings limitations. Now, if only my CIs were as pretty as Karen’s.
Terry Golson lives in a small town outside of Boston, Massachusetts. You can read about her work and her life at her website, HenCam.com.