When Disability Is A Design Opportunity

The Cooper Hewitt museum in New York City is currently running a fascinating exhibition entitled Access+Ability. The exhibit features new and innovative products that help people with disabilities experience their world more effectively through design. Some of the products are in the marketplace today, while others are in the prototype stage. All are inspiring in their use of design to solve every day problems for people with a variety of accessibility issues, including more “traditional” disabilities like mobility challenges, blindness and deafness, but also other obstacles like dementia, blood clots, and tremors.

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How My Children Taught Me To Accept My Hearing Loss

I never expected my children to be my greatest teachers, but seeing myself reflected in their eyes showed me the path I needed to take to overcome my struggles with hearing loss.

When I became a parent I was still in denial about my hearing loss, even though it had started almost 10 years prior. My father also had hearing loss, but never discussed it. I remember him actively hiding it from friends and even family when I was a child. We all knew — it is a very hard thing to hide — but it was never discussed. An unmentionable.

My family was not supportive of him. My mother would whisper comments to my sister and me behind his back. When we asked her about it she would reply, “Don’t worry, he can’t hear us.” This behavior taught me that hearing loss was something shameful and that my father should not expect any help from the family to help him cope. I look back on our behavior with regret.

So when I began having trouble hearing as an adult, I was horrified, and ashamed. I hid it the best I could, following in my father’s footsteps. I rarely disclosed it, and refused to wear my hearing aids any more than absolutely necessary.

But then I had children.

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Please Ask Me About My Hearing Loss

When I was growing up, my father never wanted to discuss his hearing loss. He was embarrassed and ashamed of not hearing. It was an unmentionable topic in my family which just perpetuated the stigma. When I emerged from my hearing loss closet almost 10 years ago, I wanted to do everything I could to crush that stigma. I sought to make hearing loss a normal topic of conversation, like someone’s back problems or new glasses. I try to do this each week on my blog.

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When Dinner Includes A Decibel Reader

Certain members of my family are very hard for me to hear. Part of it is no fault of their own — their voices are in the frequency range where my hearing loss is greatest. But I do often wonder if there isn’t more that they could do to project and enunciate their speech to make it easier for me to hear.

In fact, I think other people often have trouble hearing them too. But when I ask them about it, they say they are speaking at a normal volume and sometimes ask me if maybe the batteries on my hearing aids are getting low. Lovely.

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Your Hearing Loss Is Unique, And So Is Mine

Every hearing loss is unique. Each like a snowflake with its own nuances and sharp edges. Its own beauty and challenges. Some of us hear high frequencies better, while others detect only low sounds. Certain of us lipread or use sign language, but not all of us do. We all have different tolerances, lifestyles, and capacities. And varying degrees of residual hearing. This diversity makes hearing loss difficult to explain, and very hard for people without hearing loss to understand. 

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