How many people know about your hearing loss? Your family? Friends? You’re primary care doctor? Your dentist? When people call you on the phone, do you tell them you have trouble hearing? Let’s face it, most of us with hearing issues are loathed to admit we have a problem. Everyone wants to think they are normal, particularly if you are healthy in every other way. I am in my sixties. During my growing up years, my mother would put us to bed if we were sick. We didn’t have the antibiotics and medications of today. In the fifties and early sixties, isolation was often the best way to deal with a sick person. Though I realize we now live in a modern world, I still hold onto the stigma, that illness and medical problems of any kind should be kept under lock and key. It seems others hold this same philosophy as it relates to hearing loss.
It isn’t only our childhood experiences and mindsets that keep hearing problems invisible. Hearing aid manufacturers produce tiny aids, their advertisements proclaiming no one will know they are there. I remember getting my first pair of in-the-canal ear aids. I thought they were wonderful, I could wear my hair in any style, with my hearing aids hidden inside my ears. But it was also teaching me to keep my hearing loss invisible. As my hearing loss progressed, I went back to behind-the-ear aids and styled my hair to cover my ears. I no longer wore my hair back or cut short where the hearing aids were visible. You would not be aware of my profound hearing loss by how I look, it is only “visible” when you try to speak to me. But I should not be concerned about what others “see”, rather what they need to know about me.
The question always lurking in my mind is “who needs to know” about my hearing loss. Should everyone know? My last employer was the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University. There I taught freshman business students. Initially, I didn’t tell anyone about my hearing predicament. I enjoyed the job and my students. I did not want any stigma associated with my hearing loss to come between me and the joy of my work. But problems soon crept in. I found hearing my students during classroom discussions difficult. It was next to impossible to hear someone seated in the back of the room. I could not hear young women with soft voices. Yes, I would ask my students to speak up, but sometimes it appeared they found this uncomfortable. I then began to physically move around the classroom, getting next to whomever was speaking. However, this broke the classroom structure and chaos ensued when I left the front of the room. Finally, I saw no choice. I told my students about my hearing loss. They were surprised. To them, hearing loss was tied with age, and I did not appear “old”.
My students were understanding as most people are. But as hearing loss is invisible, they were like many and would soon forget to speak up or fail to slow down their twenty-mile-an-hour chatter. It can be hard for anyone to look at a person who looks normal in every way and realize or remember there is something wrong.
The burden falls to us to share about our hearing loss. Is it necessary to tell everyone? Only family members? Only close friendly or working relationship? I tend not to tell everyone, particularly those whom I only encounter casually. I sometimes ask strangers to speak up or slow down without an explanation, shrugging off their puzzled looks. Sometimes I see a hidden glimmer of understanding in their eyes. Perhaps they’ve encountered others with hearing loss.
It’s then I realize I’m losing an opportunity. When I share about my hearing loss and what I need to understand what is being said, I am educating them. Speaking out about my hearing loss is my responsibility! To empower ourselves and make hearing loss visible. This is the only way for others to learn and understand the struggles we face with hearing loss and know what works to make a difference.