Hearing Loss Should Not Be Embarrassing, But Sometimes It Just Is

I have a hearing loss. No big deal, right? But sometimes it is. Why is hearing loss sometimes embarrassing in a way that other conditions like vision loss or mobility challenges are not?

It really shouldn’t be. Hearing loss is quite common. More than 50 million Americans have hearing loss. This now includes one in five teenagers and 60% of our returning veterans. In fact, more people have hearing loss, than suffer from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autism and osteoporosis combined! You probably know several people with hearing loss, maybe even yourself. Yet, the stigma remains.


Maybe it is because hearing loss is invisible. You can’t see it so you don’t know it is there. This makes it easier for people with hearing loss to appear stupid when they answer the wrong question or repeat something that someone else just said. We can also appear rude or unfriendly if we don’t reply to someone’s greeting or request for assistance.

I regularly get dirty looks from people while shopping. I used to wonder why everyone was so nasty all the time, but I have come to realize that they probably said, “Excuse me,” so I would move to the side and let them pass. Since I don’t hear them, I don’t move. They think I am rude and the dirty look is their reply.

I’ve long gotten over it, but recently my soon-to-be-teenager children started getting upset by it. They feel embarrassed that their mom does not behave “appropriately” and brings negative attention to the family. They have started tapping me on the shoulder to alert me when someone wants to pass, which is actually a big help.

Just last week, though, something happened that did make me feel foolish. I was waiting in a long line at the bank but ran out of time, so I left. A piece of paper had fallen out of my purse, but I hadn’t realized it. I was halfway down the block before I finally heard the nice man yelling “Excuse me, ma’am, you dropped this paper.” I only noticed because other pedestrians on the street were stopping and turning to look at me. I felt like a fish out of water and a little panicked at being the center of this unwanted attention.

When he finally caught up with me, the man looked so annoyed, I could only mumble a reply and point to my ears. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I didn’t hear you.” He just shook his head and walked back to the bank. I’m not sure he believed me since I don’t really look the part. I am 47, not the stereotypical senior with hearing loss. I felt stupid, especially since that piece of paper was not important.

Over the years, I have grown a pretty thick skin when it comes to my hearing loss, but for people newly diagnosed, it can be a tough road. Many people go out of their way to hide it — ignoring it, denying it, and making excuses to themselves that other people are mumbling. In fact, it takes people an average of seven years to seek treatment once they first recognize a problem. It took me ten. That’s a lot of missed conversations and intimacy because of embarrassment. It’s not worth it.

My advice — if you know you have a hearing loss, or just think you might — forget the embarrassment. Get your hearing checked, accept treatment, and continue on with your vibrant and engaging life. There really is no other alternative.

Readers, does your hearing loss ever lead to embarrassment?

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50 thoughts on “Hearing Loss Should Not Be Embarrassing, But Sometimes It Just Is

  1. I feel sorry for my kids. I had a profoundly deaf mother who usually refused to wear her hearing aids. She needed them from the time she was very young, about 15. “They make me feel like an old lady.” And you’d rather look rude & foolish?

    I try to remember to wear my decorated hearing aids when I go out of the house. I’m nearly 54 but I bling the aids up so people DO notice them. At home, I don’t wear them as much. That makes things frustrating for the rest of the family. So far, they are nice about repeating themselves. My brain gets very tired after wearing the hearing aids for a long time.

    Both our kids have invisible disabilities too: FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome–brain damage, internal troubles, short stature), autism, extreme anxiety, depression & PTSD. They look like typical 12 & 13 year old kids, only smaller. They were adopted from Russian orphanages 11 1/2 years ago. The trauma stays. Others don’t know their history so they see big kids acting like 2 year olds in Target. My kids get yelled at for things they can’t help. They get stared at for ‘acting weird’. I get stared at for my ear bling. My husband gets stared at because he needs a double knee replacement but we can’t afford it now. We are a full family of invisible disabilities! I’ve learned to embrace the differences, to a point. Beyond that point, I take off my hearing aids & retreat into my own little, quieter world.

    • I have been through several incidents due to my hearing loss that was occasioned by an infantry disease.
      The memory of one particular incident has persistented.
      I was attending my first meeting after I was transfered to a new county.
      The convenor called out for all Principals of schools in the sub-,county to stand up and introduce themselves.
      I either hadn’t been attentive or my hearing loss just popped me up for embarrassment.
      I stood up and what followed seemed to me like eternity.
      I’ve never forgotten the incident.

    • Thanks for saying “your brain gets tired after wearing hearing aids for a long time” Mine does too and my family and friends don’t understand why I take them out at home when I am alone.

  2. While not diagnosed with major hearing loss I’ve dealt with ear issues all my life. Having a conversation in a quiet setting can be embarrassing at times because ambient background noise clutters my hearing and having to say “What was that again” can at times be frustrating

  3. Your sharing is one of the most relevant I have seen on social media. Keep it up! I would be happy to entertain any questions your followers might have re: hearing loss or hearing aids in general.

  4. I have been in the same situation many, many times that you described in your post. It is very frustrating and embarrassing as you stated. Many times when I get a negative response or feel the other person’s frustration, I put them in their place! I simply respond, “I am sorry but I am hearing impaired.” This usually gets a response and embarrasses the other person! Maybe they will learn to be more sympathetic!

  5. Thanks, again, Shari. You keep reminding us that it’s in the repetition of the story that the message will be heard.

    I hardly ever think of it as embarrassment, but it is. I realize that I quickly convert embarrassment into anger and frustration – for me the real bad boys of hearing loss.

    I have found that no matter how often you remind someone, including those most intimate, it’s a continuing effort. It is never done. I think that’s the part that is most tiring for me. I want to stomp and yell – HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT I AM DEAF? That’s when I re-visit my childhood fantasies of becoming a hermit. And, we all know how unhealthy that is.

    • Jerry – I cannot even begin to tell you how much I have lived the experience noted in your last paragraph! Why are we made to feel that we should be wearing some sort of sign around our necks?? But even if we did – would it matter?
      Unfortunately I do feel embarrassed by it, even though I have lived with it for 40+ years. I have friends & coworkers, who after repeating themselves 2 or 3 times & I still don’t get it, will say “just forget it”. It is an awful feeling that at times makes me pretend that I heard what they said & reply with a slight smile & a nod. Lord only knows what comment I am replying to.

  6. I wear my hearing aids always, except when I sleep. I was told that if I didn’t, there would be changes in my brain that would become permanent, making my hearing and word recognition worse. I am profoundly hard of hearing, having become so in the last 10 years, possibly due to thyroid disease as well as heredity.
    Like many others, I still have difficulty that is not compensated for with hearing aids, especially with people with very soft or low pitched voices, and in crowded environments. It is extremely stressful and tiring. Over and over, even with people who are close to me, I must constantly remind them that I cannot hear them unless they speak up. One person said it was very hard for her to do that. It was as if I was making things hard for her. Sometimes there is no choice but to be blunt… I reminded her that I do not have a choice, I cannot choose to hear more, but she can choose to speak louder. I also reminded her that she only has to do this occasionally, when she is with me or someone else who has this type of difficulty. For me, on the other hand, it is a 24/7 situation. I can understand why people with hearing loss become more self isolating, as working to hear correctly ca be mentally exhausting. It has been my experience that most people, in general cannot, or do not, wish to change their speaking habits to accommodate those with a hearing loss that is not sufficiently correctable with hearing aids. We can therefore become ” invisible” , withdrawn; living on the fringes of society. Or we can step out, keep speaking up to remind people we need to have them speak in a way that we can hear them if they wish for us to participate in conversation.
    Yes, if we don’t respond to someone who is speaking, we can be seen as “rude”…. but it is up to us to not be diminished by someone else’s attitude…we must find ways to remind others that our lack of reception is not under our control, and we must not feed into the myth that that somehow diminishes our value.
    One of the hardest things I have had to do to get the attention of those who talk to me in a way that is not able to be understood by me is to IGNORE them. Yes, I can hear that they are talking to me, but I don’t know what they are saying…these people who I am with daily KNOW I am hard of hearing, yet consistently do not speak to me in a way that I can understand. Yes, they feel uncomfortable, as they feel ignored…..until they realize I am not receiving information. This is very uncomfortable for me to do, but it does get their attention in a way that no words can..It is far harder for me to continuously say, “I can’t hear you”, or “what did you say?”, to people that I am with all day long…..it’s just too draining!
    I do find I often need to spend more time alone, so I can recharge and recover from the additional “workload” of hearing.
    If others have found a way to deal with this, I’d love to hear it, it would be so great to find a way to navigate hearing loss in this world that is comfortable for all.

      • I may have commented on this before, but I will say again, not just as an audiologist, but as a person with hearing loss like most of you who converse in this forum. I was diagnosed back in the 80’s when I was still in the Army (73 – 93). They gave me hearing aids and I hated them. (appearance mostly) Only when I began to study to be and audiologist did I get serious about it. The hearing aids now are so much better, it’s unbelievable. There really is no more stigma about them because they look great and are mostly invisible anyway. I agree with the original writer to go ahead and start the process. They really help.

    • You are definitely not alone. I have to resist hiding out alone all the time. It’s important to keep trying – saying the same things to the same people over and over. It’s because they can’t “see” your hearing loss. If you were in a wheelchair they would be falling all over themselves compensating for your disability. Hang in there, my friend, and speak up for what you need. Nobody else will do it for you. 🙂 It just goes with the territory.

    • Spot on! You work so hard all day to hear, but it’s such a relief to get home and take them out so it’s quiet .

  7. This post made a lot of sense for me. I’ve been deaf since about 50 and in the beginning, I really experienced that feeling of being embarrassed by not hearing. Over time I’ve got so I announce my deafness everywhere I go. I don’t know if it helps anybody else, but I feel better. Oh, I’ve also had a lot of help from friends, as you describe having had from your children. That’s something I deeply appreciate.

  8. Truly a very timely post! My sense was that the number of people with hearing loss was huge and I believe it’s growing exponentially; just as are the noise levels around us. We now take earplugs or sound dampening ear phones to go to movie theaters and regular theater to dampen the frequencies echoing in the buildings. I watch families in social situations and can tell who really is not present. My girlfriend went to a family birthday at a restaurant and had the TV monitor changed to display curling which her father liked. That way he sat and watched curling while he ate and was present at the event without feeling like he was not there. Thanks for writing about this topic: it needs to be voiced.

  9. Thanks so much for this blog and the great comments. I totally agree. I find that if I say “my ears are broken” rather than “I have a hearing loss” people seem to get the message. Though, then some ask “are your ears fixed now?” I can only dream 🙂

  10. One more thing: The true responsibility for completing a verbal transaction lies with both parties. If you say something to someone who “seems” not to have heard or understood or realized that you were talking to them – then it is your responsibility to make sure. Any or all of the above might be true, especially in a group setting.

    The goal is accurate communication. Personalities must be kept out of the process. Even after announcing to a group that it helps to make sure I am looking at them and they at me when addressing me, It usually falls apart after a while. It takes major amounts of patience and perseverance, with which I was not abundantly blessed.

  11. I agree with that Jerry. It’s not easy – if you are cognizant of the the present moment (like someone didn’t quite get it), it feels like it’s always up to you to insure the message was received. But, that’s the price of being a diligent communicator. One should also ensure they have the best audiologist they can find, and get the best hearing aids for their loss they can afford.

  12. I was born with it. Was always made fun of. Repeated things already said, answered misunderstood questions, said things out of line of the conversation, interrupted when I thought the speaker was finished, etc. Can be quite embarrassing.

  13. I am continually finding myself in embarrassing situations by misunderstanding what was said and answering inappropriately. My children have not complained that I have embarrassed them and are always stepping in to help interpret, but I know for sure they have found it challenging and frustrating. I have also been chased down the street after dropping something, been considered aloof and rude and often am given dirty looks in the supermarket when someone has said “excuse me” while I was busy reading a label and did not notice them. My friendships have narrowed down to those who truly want to make the effort to speak loudly, clearly, face me, and to even help interpret when we are in social situations where it is necessary. Luckily there are a few who care enough to do that. I have stopped trying with those who continually refuse to include me. I now dismiss “low talkers” if they know I have an issue with hearing them and yet still will not accommodate. It is true and unfortunate that social situations have become both physically and emotionally exhausting. I find myself weighing the benefits and making preparations to hearing before I go anywhere these days.

  14. I’ve been in that situation enough and I congratulate you on picking up visually what you couldn’t hear. There are lots of visual cues out there thank goodness. You did good.
    Hearing loss is confusing and saying “I can’t hear well” probably sounds weak to others and it doesn’t tell people what we need. I quit saying I’m hard of hearing all together. I now tell people I lipread and if I can’t see them, I can’t hear them which is the truth. I’m not the best lipreader I know but it adds about 35-40% to my understanding which is an important gain! They know they have to face me at that point and then what’s left of my hearing is helped also. Depending on how much time you have it’s an opportunity to educate that person.

  15. Man, I love reading the comments on your posts. Evidently, we are an underserved community. I’d love the hear the stats on your traffic. Bet it is growing quickly!

  16. Great essay. I’m going to share it with some of my family. It’s hard to explain to people how hearing loss affects social interactions. This morning I ate Breakfast at McDonald’s. When ordering in a noisy environment like that, I am always careful to detail my order up front because I know I will have a hard time understanding any questions from the cashier. Today I said, “two burritos, burritos only, not the meal, salsa, a medium fountain drink, to eat in.” Then the questions started, “will that be a meal?”, “What size drink?”, “Do you want selsa?” “Is that to eat in?” Every time I was asked a question, I had to lean way over the counter to get closer to the voice and focus hard on the cashier’s mouth to try and read her lips. I felt uncomfortable and I’m sure she did too. I have aids in both ears but they are not eaisly visable so I doubt that the cashier noticed them. Usually I just say to the cashier that I am hard of hearing but for some reason I didn’t do that today and things got feeling uncomfortable really quickly. I’d say that about half the time the cashiers in places like this follow their script of questions regardless og what I say upfront. Not really faulting them. It is a boring mininum wage job do can’t expect too much. It’s just another example of how hearing loss can create embarrassing social situations.

    • Seems to me she didn’t hear you very well. Maybe worse than you heard her. We always assume it is us that isn’t hearing correctly when in fact it might, and may times is, the other persons hearing. Everyone misses things that are said to them. We, the hearing impaired, all get upset or embarrassed where as they just ask to have it repeated and think nothing of saying ‘what did you say?’ I think we, meaning me, are all too aware of feeling different when in fact we might not be as different as we think we are.

  17. I am having great difficulty. I had sudden hearing loss a few years ago that led me to profound deafness with tinnitus in one ear, and fluctuating loss in the other. I had a hearing aid but it was of limited help. I do okay, until other people are talking in the background.

    I have just moved to a new city and am trying to make friends. Some guys were kind enough to ask me out for ice cream and karaoke last night. All went fine during the ice cream, but when we got to the bar for karaoke it all went downhill. I literally could not understand a word anybody was saying, and just stood silently. My friends came to me, taking me outside expressing concern that I was okay. I explained about the hearing but, I have to confess, being in a situation in the midst of people and not being able to understand anybody results in feelings of panic, which I can’t always hide. My thoughts were taken over by ideas that “I am really blowing this opportunity to make friends,” or, “They must think I am such a stupid, rude jerk.”

    I hate to swear off attending gatherings of people, but I’m afraid I’m headed in that direction.

    • Hi Michael. Thanks for sharing your story. You are definitely not alone in your struggles with hearing loss. I like how you were honest with your new acquaintances about your hearing issues. Perhaps next time you can choose a more hearing friendly activity. One suggestion would be to see if there is an HLAA chapter in your new area. For me, meeting other people with hearing loss has been a great support network. You can locate them at this link: http://www.hearingloss.org/support_resources/find-local-hlaa-chapter

  18. I really liked your post. It was really inspiring. I was diagnosed with hearing loss when I was 13, and got my first pair of hearing aids at 14 years old. It had only been a year since I had moved from the UK to Canada. It was suspected I had hearing loss when I was a baby, because I started speaking late at 5, but no abnormalities were discovered at that time. When I first got aids, I don’t think it effected me much because I though everyone was like me. I slowly learned that wasn’t the case. I used to barely wear my aids unless my hair was down. I always faked hearing in classes, and group discussions, and although not as much, even to my family. I am 18 years old now, and in my first year of university. I think I’ve become a bitter stronger than I used to be. I advocate more, and try to feel less embarrassed. There are times when I just don’t do anything, because I think anything to do with my hearing loss could be an inconvenience to others. And I truly feel at times it’s an inconvenience to me. I am however, trying not to think that way. I mean there are positives. I try to study hard in school because I’m always paranoid I missed something in lecture. I’m just gonna think positively like that. I really like your story though. It’s nice hearing from the experience of someone who has gone through it. You remind me, and everyone here who has written comments, to be a little hopeful for one more day, and to live life to the fullest.

    Thank you


  19. Being born partially deaf has been a struggle all my life. One does not fit into the so called Deaf community nor the Hearing category. Although from my own experience I get by in many situations with speech, there are many times when trying to decipher what has been said has been not only embarrassing, but it has left me feeling so frustrated and deeply depressed. It is a fact that deafened people are also more prone to depression. Considering that so many people have various degrees of hearing loss, it is a shame that more is not done in mainstream schools to educate people about the real problems deaf / hard of hearing face in real life situations. BSL and also deaf awareness should, I believe, be a part of the national curriculum. Perhaps if children were educated about this horrid affliction, then society as a whole would accommodate more understanding to sufferers. We have all been in situations where someone has seen your hearing aid and presumed it is an all out cure for deafness, how wrong we know they are. Unless they have educated themselves about various frequencies or decibel levels of deafness, no one can ever truly get a picture of what it is actually like in life situations for a person with hearing loss and the true life impacts it entails.

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