Hearing loss and self-image

Image 1Many years ago, I read that if  you lose your hearing (relatively) young, you adjust to it better.  That makes sense, being what we now know about declining brain plasticity as we age, and the importance of getting cochlear implants (for those who need them) as early as possible, so their brains are better able to adjust to the CI signals.

I’m from a hard-of-hearing family.  My father started wearing hearing aids (the body aids, then the cute little ones that were ebedded in his eyeglass frames) when I was very young.  I can’t even remember when that started; it seems like he was always hard-of-hearing.  Now, he has a cochlear implant.

My sister and I both started losing our hearing at a relatively-young age (late 30s).  We were so used to dealing with hearing loss, it almost seemed inevitable.  In retrospect.

But the fact that we had dealt with Dad for so long (and Aunt Claire, and others) meant that we were really good at the skills you need to communicate.  I can rephrase a sentence instantly, direct my voice, slow down, and face people….and when I’m in a group conversation, I catch myself checking to see if I’m blocking anyone’s view of the speaker (so everyone can lip-read).  It’s second nature.  I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting other hard-of-hearing people, especially if they’re “faking it” (smiling and nodding and hoping nobody notices).  That’s a dead giveaway.  Or if they consistently turn their head to one side when listening to me.

I never really “got” the stigma thing as acutely as some people do.  But I have talked, read, and written a lot about it.  Sure, I get pissy and cranky sometimes, and the other day I told my husband, “I’m tired of being hard-of-hearing.”  Good luck with that.

I was always really curious about the stigma associated with hearing loss.  Why is it so strong?  Why don’t we try to hide and avoid eyeglasses as diligently as hearing aids?  When I thought about it, I came up with several contributing factors.

“I tried hearing aids, but they don’t work.”

Hearing aids really don’t compensate for hearing loss the way most eyeglasses correct our vision.  But people often don’t know that until they’ve had the experience, all too common, of adjusting their standards (downward) to the actual capabilities of hearing aids.  If we were all more cognizant of that fact, maybe the “I tried hearing aids, and they don’t work,” narrative would be less common.  They can’t work as well as the systems we were born with (especially our brains).  We should know that from the get-go.

“I don’t really need hearing aids.”
Another contribution to the stigma is that mild hearing loss is something we can compensate for, at least at the beginning.   But many of us cling to that illusion for far too long.  In a 2011 study by ASHA and AARP, over half of the (self-described) people with “untreated hearing loss” said that minor hearing difficulties are “easy enough to live with untreated.”  Define “minor.”  I have to wonder if the respondents’ spouses and family members would agree.

My own wake-up call happened at a party.  My good friend, Kathleen, took me aside and said, emphatically (so I would hear it), “KATHI!  Your FRIENDS really LIKE IT when you wear your HEARING AIDS!”  Okay, I can take a hint.  Time to take them out of the dresser drawer full-time.

“I don’t want people to know I’m hard-of-hearing.”

Another reason for the stigma was put very best3aptly by Helen Keller, when she said, “seeing connects you with things. Hearing connects you with people.”  I can feel an object in my hands and get at least a sense of its size and shape and texture.  Without hearing, you don’t have much to go on to get the sound in another sensory modality.  Ahem.

The basic difference between visual and sound signals was brought home in a NYTimes editorial by Lance Strate, professor of media ecology at Fordham, about the role of sound in human culture.  It is, according to him, our species’ primary warning signal.  We can hear things that we can’t see, when we’re not facing them, even when we’re fast asleep.

And it is our oldest communication medium.  “We evolved with speech, not with writing,”  Strate points out.  It’s nice to think of humans as having evolved way beyond that tribal state, but even in the contemporary world, our hearing loss might signal that we are less-than-ideal tribe members.  We’re more likely to miss the warning when brakes screech, a dog barks, a child screams, or the snap! when a tiger steps on a branch.

Just plain stubborn

There are plenty of reasons for people to avoid owning up to and dealing with hearing loss.  I still meet hard-of-hearing people who are independent-minded, grounded, brave, and can afford them, but who will not get and wear hearing aids.

My heart goes out to them.  They are missing so much, and further exhausting their poor, tired brains by trying to make sense out of speech without the volume or the frequency tweaks that are so helpful.  Not to mention over-relying on their spouses and friends to help them cope.

What can I do?  Write about hearing and hearing loss.  Talk about it openly at any opportunity. Give advice (when asked).   Ask for accommodations.  I figure that every time I do one of these “embarrassing” things, I’m making it easy for everyone else to do it next time.  At least I tell myself that.





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