But, You Don’t Look Deaf

Have you ever noted your hearing loss for an airline and had them show up with a wheelchair? Or requested a transcript of an audio guide at a museum and gotten something in braille? When I hear stories like this, I always shake my head in amazement at how uninformed people are about hearing loss and wonder what we, the hearing loss community, can do to better educate them.

But what about when this type of behavior comes from someone who should know better — someone who has an immediate family member with profound hearing loss. It is harder to know how to respond.

Recently I attended an open captioned performance event for people with hearing loss. At intermission, I was gushing about the captions to my husband and the gentleman seated behind me must have overheard. “Why are you so enamored of the captions,” he asked. I was excited to have the opportunity to sing the praises of the open captions and help build awareness about hearing loss. I told him that I have a hearing loss and that the captions help me catch the dialogue I might otherwise have missed. They really help me enjoy attending the theater.

“But, you don’t look deaf,” he said to me. “Do you even wear hearing aids?” “I do,” I replied, “two.” Then I turned away to talk with some other folks I knew at the show. Later, the man engaged me again. He wanted to know if I was here with these other people. They didn’t look deaf either. And we certainly all spoke too clearly to have significant hearing problems.

I was starting to get annoyed. Didn’t he understand that someone can’t LOOK deaf? People with hearing issues are young and old, of every race, religion and creed. We don’t look a certain way. We just can’t hear. Despite my irritation, I decided to keep talking with him to help break down the misperceptions people have about people with hearing loss.

Eventually he came clean. It turned out that this man had first hand experience with hearing loss. His brother was born deaf and had battled significant issues with stigma while growing up. He had a tough time in school both academically and socially. It made his life very difficult. Only recently had things improved for his brother when he received a cochlear implant at age 65.

I started to have more sympathy for this man. Maybe he was just angry at the people who had mistreated his brother growing up or perhaps he was jealous of our group of people with hearing loss who were happily enjoying a night at the theater, something his brother probably never got to do.

My takeaway from this experience — gratitude for how much things have improved for people with hearing loss over the past 25 years, but also as a sign of how much work remains to be done.

Readers, do you look deaf?

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41 thoughts on “But, You Don’t Look Deaf

  1. I am deaf in one hear and have moderate loss in the other ear. Because I do hear so well in my good ear, I’ve had people assume that I am ignoring them, rude or arrogant because I don’t respond in 3 seconds. Once I tell them I have a hearing loss (my CROS 2 Phonak hearing aids are not very visible under my hair, which is past shoulder length) they are usually so embarrassed they do not know how to respond. CROS 2 hearing aids had not been invented when I was in school, so I was the target of bullies. I’ve had people tell me that I don’t need to let others know about my hearing loss, I should just tell them I wasn’t paying attention. I am very vocal about my hearing loss. It’s a challenge for me and it’s fun to try to explain it to people. I sign but only around my deaf friends, which I have a lot of.

  2. I used to hide my hearing loss years ago because people would exaggerate their lip movements and talk louder making it more difficult to understand.
    Now I tell people up front that I’m hearing impaired and reading their lips. I mostly get positive results and lots more patience when responding to me, so I’m educating others in my own way.

  3. “lots more patience”? Ha, that’s a laugh. Almost every person that claims that they don’t mind repeating themselves to me b/c I am extremely HOH with hearing aids, having to repeat themselves more than once, the annoyance appears in facial gestures, tone of voice and body language. The only people that are actually patient are those that have deaf or HOH family members.

    • Oh I totally agree with what you say Bob. In my family I can get by with asking for a repeat twice, but the third request is greeted with a lot of heavy sighing, facial displeasure or the put upon “never mind”. I keep telling them to rephrase, or that I heard A-B-C but not D…that’s what I’m wanting them to repeat. I’m trying to have a conversation with them, but it’s might frustrating sometimes.

  4. Very lovely and interesting article.
    Yes we do look normal, and we are!
    It is the look on people’s faces when I do tell them I’m hearing impaired. The surprise is first. The eyebrows go up, then they have a speech impediment because they don’t know what to say or how to handle you.
    Yes, there is a lot to learn for those with normal hearing 🙂

  5. At the airport on my way home from a meeting of the Hearing Loss Association of America I requested “pre-boarding” because I cannot understand the announcements. They said of course! Then they asked me if I needed a wheelchair to meet me at my destination – and even after I reminded them that my disability is not related to mobility, but hearing, they repeated the offer of a wheelchair. We have a ways to go!

  6. Good afternoon, Shari. For the first ten or so years that I wore HAs they were deep in the ear canal and virtually invisible. Then I needed more powerful units which were behind the ear and visible. I’ve never had enough hair to hide anything so from that point on it was apparent that I had something going on with hearing, much the same as I look as though I have something going on with seeing since I wear glasses. And, since glasses can – in most cases – render the wearer near perfect eyesight, so HAs should render the wearer near perfect hearing – – – RIGHT?

    Now with this beautiful Advanced Bionics sound processor and headpiece hanging on my head it is obvious I have something going on with my hearing. But, I hasten to say that as in the case with glasses, my guess is that many people think that “treated” hearing loss renders near perfect hearing.

    My point is that even though we have obvious HAs and implants others don’t see someone who can’t hear “normally”. They think all is well – we’ve fixed it and so no special accommodation needs to be made.

    The path ahead is long and tricky for those of us with serious hearing loss. Progress will be incremental and sparse. Public education and technological advances go hand in hand toward a time when, for the sake of understanding, children will, once again, be taught to speak clearly, noice will be abated and we won’t have to worry about missing a flight next time out. Sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it?

    • That is a great point! And we all know very well that hearing aids and CIs, while very helpful, do not restore hearing to normal levels. The path ahead is long, but if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, we will eventually make progress. Thanks as always for your comments!

  7. Whenever I go to the airport gate, I just ask for the preboarding slip and the clerk never asks me what disability just because I just give the ticket.

    Also, whenever I meet a naive person who speaks too fast, I just nod and do not speak back. Then I continue to do what I am doing.

    When the person is puzzled, I just say my ears are broken, rather than say that I have impaired hearing!

  8. I enjoyed the article. Born profoundly hard of hearing in the late 50’s didn’t bode well for those of us with the lousy technology of the day. It took till I was in kindergarten for anyone to realized I couldn’t hear. But now, wow! State of the art digital hearing aids, Bluetooth compatibility with a Compilot II. Trained to lipread from K-6 sure helped plus it’s fun to show off to friends with it. Life is good.

  9. I do not look deaf 🙂

    I am 41 years of age and deaf on my left side with a pretty nasty tinnitus. I sometimes have a lot of trouble hearing and understanding people. But I sometimes also have little trouble. It depends mostly on the situation I am in.

    When I do have trouble and I tell people about it they are surprised. Although I am bald my hearing aids (Phonac Cros) are pretty invisible. Luckely almost every time I get a positive respons and people will try to take it into account. Most of them also forget within minutes, but I can’t blame them.

    I am sure not hearing or noticing people will happen often enough. And it this will probably lead to some comments behind my back. But the people I care about, socialize with and work with all know about. And when they forget and ask me why I didn’t respond or I notice they are annoyed I remind them.

    That’s pretty much enough for me 😉

  10. I’m 15 and i have severely moderate hearing loss in my right ear but i only found out about it a few months ago. This meant it was quite hard to hear my teacher and I dropped down in grades at school. So i have never had this problem as such but people still thought I was rude for ignoring them. As soon as i got my hearing aid I told all my friends and they where all really happy for me, so I think where I’m in a new generation they don’t treat you differently or say mean things because they may have grown up with more information which has helped alot. So I wear my hearing aid with pride because I think of it like glasses some people need glasses to see as there eyesight isn’t as good as everyone else’s and i wear my hearing aid to hear people because I haven’t got the same hearing abilitys. This arrival really helped me and even though i I haven’t faced it first hand i am still informed if it does so thank you.

    • I am so glad you are wearing your hearing aids with pride and that the reaction of your friends is so positive! I hope that you are right that the next generation will be much better informed. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

  11. My hearing aids aren’t always seen when my hair is down I have a lot of hair, so if don’t hear and can sense person isn’t patient I will inform them. I have an implant hearing aid that is sometimes visible when hair is up… one that people always find for me is my speech having good speech for someone who is deaf and also born with a cleft palate (fully repaired)

    I have always been big that people will only know if they ask questions so I try encouraging people who look to be curious about my hearing loss, I like to do what I can to educate more about hearing loss 🙂

  12. I am a late deafened (young) adult. I speak exceptionally well, and I also sign. I am a high school teacher and a graduate student (Master’s x3). I have fought to get an interpreter and accommodations for myself in the classroom because, according to the school, I am smart, I don’t need to hear. (Yes, that is a direct quote spoken to me more than once.)

  13. Hi

    i suppose that I do look deaf.

    Yes I have a hearing loss and wear hearing aids and as a guy who has very short close, cropped hair then i find it impossible, should I ever want to, hide my hearing aids.

    I have a pair of BTE hearing aids with standard, I suppose, ear moulds, so anyone can see them.

    Must say though, I never want to hide them. They might give a clue to anybody who doesn’t know me, that I don’t hear that well

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