“Do you mind if I switch seats with you? I have a hearing loss and it would help if I had a better view of the speaker,” I asked a well-dressed man at a recent lunch meeting. “What?” he replied with a smirk, not because he didn’t hear me, but because he was making a joke. Seeing my grim smile in return, he continued, “I guess you have probably heard that one before.” That is an understatement.
If I had asked him to switch seats because I had trouble seeing or because I was recovering from surgery and needed extra space for my bandaged foot, I don’t think I would have gotten a joke as the reply. In this modern world, where making fun of people based on race or religion or mental stability is no longer tolerated – and rightly so – why is it still ok to make fun of hearing loss?
I believe it has to do with the stigma surrounding hearing loss. You can read more about that here. People with hearing loss are often seen as “old” or “slow” or “rude” or “out of touch” and “not worth the time.” People sometimes complain to me how frustrating it is that their aging mother or father can’t hear them, or that they have grown weary of constantly repeating themselves, and I can understand how they must feel. Hearing loss is hard on the entire family. But I don’t like when they tell me they wish their loved one would try harder to hear. Can a blind person try harder to see?
Maybe I am being too sensitive. As Tracy Morgan once said,
“We need to learn to laugh at ourselves because when you don’t laugh, you cry. And I don’t feel like crying.”
I agree, but the fact remains — hearing loss is the last disability where insensitivity is still socially acceptable.
Is this because hearing loss is often associated with getting older? Statistics tell us that this is not actually true. According to the Better Hearing Institute, 65% of people with hearing loss are below age 65. Also, 20% of teenagers now experience some form of hearing loss. But the association remains. You can find more hearing loss facts here.
I recently attended a conference, where the topic of growing older was on the agenda. One of the speakers, Lynne Spreen, blogs frequently on the topic of ageism. In her talk, she shared several examples in which older folks were portrayed poorly. For example, in the tablet ad below, how would you feel if it said, “A tablet so simple even a woman can use it.” Or, imagine replacing the word old in these ads with the name of a racial or religious group — it would transform the sentence into a slur! You can read her original post here.
So what can we do to break the stigma of hearing loss?
1. Keep talking about it. While much has been written lately about the fading stigma of hearing loss now that wearing Bluetooth type devices on the ear is commonplace, I’m not sure I am convinced. If hearing loss is still the punchline of a joke, the stigma remains.
2. Refute the stigma by leading our vibrant and engaging lives with our hearing loss and hearing devices proudly on display. Encourage others to do the same.
3. Educate the public about the challenges of hearing loss and advocate for public policy changes instituting accommodations for people with hearing loss in public spaces and including hearing devices in insurance coverage.
4. Advocate for ourselves by demanding the accommodations we need and commending those businesses who provide them.
5. Vote with our patronage. There are 50 million people in the United States with hearing loss — this is a lot of potential consumer spending. Frequent businesses and service providers that are hearing loss friendly and avoid those that are not. Be sure to tell these businesses why you do or do not use their services.
Readers, do people make jokes to you about your hearing loss?