Having hearing loss can sometimes feel like you are stuck between two worlds — the hearing world and the Deaf community — not fully fitting into either. Abigail Heringer, a cochlear-implant-wearing cast member on the 2021 season of The Bachelor summed it up well: “I think people view the hearing community and the Deaf community (with the capital D) as black and white and I’m kind of that gray space in the middle that hasn’t had a lot of light shone on it.” Her presence on the show helps do exactly that — shine a light on that space in the middle, where the vast majority of people with hearing loss reside.
We hope to do the same with our upcoming documentary We Hear You.
Hearing Loss Representation Critical in Mainstream Media
Hearing loss, like Deafness, is not a one-size-fits-all experience. It encompasses a broad spectrum of views, technologies and life encounters. Yet each time we see the hearing loss community represented, it is a chance to break down stereotypes, shatter stigma and build awareness. For example, the night Abigail first mentioned her cochlear implant on the show, Google searches for “cochlear implant” skyrocketed. When awareness increases, understanding and empathy are not far behind.
Abigail also served as a role model for other cochlear implant recipients and their families. She has received countless notes from other CI recipients as well as parents of children with CIs who were thrilled to see someone who looked like them on screen. Representation inspires confidence and the belief that anything is possible — an important feeling for children who might be struggling with their hearing differences.
Her example also helped to shatter some of the traditional myths surrounding hearing loss.
The Myth of Hearing Loss and Old Age
A beautiful young woman in her 20s is not what most people expect when they think about hearing loss. They probably imagine a senior citizen. Yet hearing loss is not limited to the old: 65% of people with hearing loss are under the age of 65.
While no one person represents the experience of the entire D/deaf community, the fact that Abigail did not know or use sign language shows that not everyone with hearing issues communicates with sign language. In fact, of the 48 million Americans with hearing loss, only 2 million use sign language as their primary form of communication.
While sign language may seem like a logical alternative for people with hearing loss, for many of us, it is not. Few, if any, of our friends, family members or work colleagues know sign language. And neither do we! Learning a new language seems less practical than working to communicate better with the one we already know.
The Myth of Hearing Devices
Many people believe that hearing devices are just like glasses — slip them on and our hearing snaps into focus. But this is not the case. While hearing aids make things louder, they don’t always make things sharper and clearer. They are also not good at distinguishing among sounds — meaning the background noises are amplified in addition to the speech sounds we want to hear.
While cochlear implants (CIs) work a different way — they don’t make things louder, but instead bypass the damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve — the result is similar. There is an improved ability to hear, but the hearing loss is not “fixed” or “cured.” Additional strategies like speechreading and using communication best practices are still needed for effective communication.
Self-Advocacy Becomes Societal Advocacy
Abigail also had an impact on the cast and crew members directly through her interactions with them both on and off the camera. In her interview with Hearing Like Me, Abigail talks about the help she received from the producers during difficult scenes like a water-based date. They held her processors while she was on the water to keep them dry and returned them when she reached the other shore so she could rejoin the conversation. Each time they and others witnessed this type of activity, they learned more about the needs of people with hearing loss. And about how they could be part of the communication solution.
The same is true for each of us on a daily basis. Each time we self-advocate, we are helping others understand more about hearing loss as well as the ways they can assist in create better communication — not just for us — but for everyone.
Readers, what does hearing loss representation in mainstream media mean to you?