Huh? What’s that? Come again!
When something in life comes along that departs from what is known and understood, often the first thing people do is fear it. Have you ever thought why that is? What causes that fear? Answering this question could help us answer another important question: How do we overcome the fear?
“Fear” may be too strong of a word for everything that is different. Sometimes the fear stems from an unconscious social stigma — or “a mental mark of shame or discredit.” This stigma may especially be true for any disabilities, but one that people often forget about is hearing loss, despite its being one of the most prevalent disabilities in the United States.
Why does our society still place an unconscious social stigma on those with hearing loss when it affects 13-15% of Americans? In this three-part series, we’ll first look behind the stigma surrounding hearing loss, then, in our next blog article, we’ll examine ways to be an advocate, and finally, we’ll look at current and future technologies to further empower people with hearing loss.
Behind the Stigma
A lot of individual pieces make up a social stigma. For hearing loss, we’ll look at the words we use, differences between hearing loss and Deafness, wearing hearing aids, the internal stresses of hearing loss, hearing loss and ageism, and health care coverages. To overcome a stigma or bias, you must understand it first, and then once you understand it, you must work to overcome it individually and then collectively through advocacy. This is not an easy process and is often painful. But to overcome the perceived stigmas placed on marginalized populations — whether that is for disabilities or something else — we must work together.
Let’s start with how language affects our perception of hearing loss.
Why is “hearing impaired” so controversial?
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “hearing impaired?” Some members of the hearing loss community use it as their go-to phrase, and others hate it. So, why are there those who cringe at the phrase?
Some people think of impairment as a disability and don’t want to consider their hearing loss as such. Others think that it is an impairment only if present at birth, meaning they would not consider losing hearing later in life an impairment. According to Meriam-Webster, an impairment is “diminishment or loss of function or ability.” Because this phrase covers a wide range of usage, the important thing is not to fear it because if you do, others will as well.
Other phrases that tend to creep up when dealing with an impairment that might make some uncomfortable or shy away are handicapped and disability. You might be uncomfortable with these words, especially when you could swear you hear just fine, or that people just need to speak up and stop mumbling. Coming to terms with words like impairment, disability, or handicap might be the first step in your healing process. Much like any other diagnosis, you may need to go through the grieving process of what once was and what your new normal will be.
To help you overcome this obstacle and trauma (because a life-changing diagnosis is a trauma), find a therapist you like and talk about what the diagnosis means to you and why the aforementioned words scare or bother you. Understanding and processing your situation will lead you to being able to teach others that the situation is not as bad or scary as you might have once thought it was.
The difference between hearing loss and deafness
Do you know the difference between hearing loss and Deafness? Understanding what each is may also help you process your situation. Some people are born with hereditary hearing loss, some lose their hearing to disease or sudden events — such as a percussive explosion — and some just gradually lose a little bit of their hearing over time, also known as presbycusis.
People in the Deaf community who were born Deaf usually go through life knowing they have that disability and make the most of it. They often learn sign language to communicate. While someone who lost their hearing later in life — even to complete hearing loss — might not learn to communicate through sign language.
One big difference between hearing loss and Deafness would be the range of hearing: Someone who was born completely Deaf doesn’t know what sounds they’re missing because they’ve never been able to hear. Someone who loses their hearing later in life — depending on the severity of their hearing loss — will know the sounds they can no longer hear, for example high or low frequencies. It really comes down to the degree of hearing loss and life experiences.
Hearing aids are stigmatized, while glasses are normalized
Another thing to consider is how society’s perception of eyeglasses has changed. What comes to your mind when you see someone wearing glasses? You may think something like Wow, she looks so good in those glasses or Those glasses frame that guy’s face really well. Glasses are commonplace now and used as fashion statements. No one looks at another person wearing glasses and thinks, Gee, that person has a disability or sight impairment, I must treat them differently.
The glasses wearer’s eyesight may have diminished due to myriad reasons, and as a human being, they deserve the utmost respect. So, too, do people with hearing aids and hearing loss. Glasses and hearing aids are both just ways to correct an impairment for functional equivalency.
How many people who wear prescription eyeglasses do you know? Consider this: One out of every three people over the age of 65, two out of every three people over 75, and 14% of people ages 45-64 have significant hearing loss. Also, hearing loss and tinnitus are the two biggest reasons for medical disability among United States service men and service women as well as all U.S. veterans.
If most people eventually have hearing troubles, why then is there still a stigma around hearing loss and hearing aids? Unlike with glasses, many people don’t get their hearing tested or get corrective solutions — such as hearing aids — because they feel they can cope and get by without the need to wear a hearing aid.
The self-imposed stigma
This part will look different for every person; however, studies have shown that people with hearing loss live with depression at more than twice the national average. One of the biggest reasons is that communicating is difficult. When you find communication challenging — maybe you feel embarrassed to ask people to repeat themselves, or don’t want to impose and ask for accommodations — spending time with friends, family, or other social gatherings becomes taxing.
When you struggle to understand every word, it is exhausting — the same feeling occurs when you are immersing yourself in learning a second language. These difficult situations lead to withdrawing from social settings, resulting in isolation and increased risk for depression.
Therefore, recognizing your hearing loss, getting it treated, and advocating for change is so important.
Because many people who live with hearing loss are in their golden years, an unfortunate side effect is discrimination based on age — or ageism. Some people will place that burden upon themselves, thinking that wearing their hearing aids makes them look or feel older. Others may — whether you are older or not—have that bias in their mind and associate hearing loss with age.
One of the main reasons people put off getting hearing aids, deny their hearing loss, or feed the stigma is the cost due to lack of coverage. “WHO estimates that unaddressed hearing loss poses an annual global cost of US$ 980 billion. This includes health sector costs (excluding the cost of hearing devices), costs of educational support, loss of productivity, and societal costs.”
Top-of-the-line hearing aids are not cheap, and most insurance companies won’t pay for them. While vision correction and eyeglasses are part of most people’s health care coverage, hearing health care is not. More people may make the decision to get treatment earlier if they were not weighed down by the costs associated with treating and helping hearing loss.
While no easy solution to this problem exists, continued advocacy — asking for insurance companies to recognize that hearing health care represents part of your overall health care and should be treated as such — is key. Hearing aids are just as important to maintaining and even improving your well-being as anything else.
Overcoming Stigmas Through Advocacy
In our second article on overcoming the stigma surrounding hearing loss, we will delve more into empowering advocacy for yourself, loved ones, and others with the goal of diminishing societal fears.
CaptionCall is here to help
CaptionCall helps to connect people with hearing loss to the social situations they may have withdrawn from by providing this life-changing service. We provide a true no-cost captioning service so you can read and hear what your caller is saying. This service is available to anyone with hearing loss that needs captions to use the phone effectively.
If you are on the go all the time and are eligible for the service, you should try the CaptionCall Mobile app on your Apple and Android devices. If a smartphone is not your thing, you can have the wonderful home phone option delivered directly to you by one of our amazing trainers who will sit down with you and teach you how to use it. They can answer any questions you have, and our customer support team can help you any time after that if you run into any more questions.