The “Stigma” of Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids – Part One
By Mark Ross
Editor: The stigma of hearing loss – how happy will we all be when stigma is no more related to hearing loss than to wearing glasses. In the meantime, Here’s Mark Ross with his thoughts on the topic. This article was originally published in the May/June issue of “Hearing Loss” magazine and is reprinted with the author’s kind permission. This is Part One of two parts.
A while ago I read a press release from the Oticon Company announcing its Focus on Hearing Award. The award is titled “Honoring People Who Defy the Stigma of Hearing Loss” by living full and productive lives. In reading this press release I was taken by the implicit assumption that, of course, a hearing loss is a stigmatizing condition; this was presented as an unquestioned given. Now, in commenting on this press release I do not mean to single out the Oticon Company in any negative fashion; to the contrary, this company is a very reputable one with a long history of sponsoring many public service activities. (Full disclosure: I received this award myself some years ago.) What I’m objecting to is the widespread dissemination of this characterization by the entire hearing aid industry. “Stigma” is a term that I’ve seen applied to people with hearing loss for over fifty years, one that I thought insulting the first time I saw it and even more so now. First, however, let’s see exactly how the term is actually defined.
The two definitions I picked up from the Internet were: “A mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach as in one’s reputation,” and “A mark of shame or infamy, disgrace, or reproach.” Now besides having a hearing loss myself, I’ve met thousands of people who have hearing losses and I can’t think of any for whom these definitions apply. We can think of a hearing loss in many ways, as a condition that can have a pervasive impact on one’s life, or maybe just as a pain in the neck. But whatever we or some others in our society think of it, its presence can hardly be thought of as a “mark of shame” or some sort of personal disgrace. It is, rather, a fact of life, one that should be prevented if at all possible, or dealt with if not.
Still, I can hardly deny the fact that there is something about having a hearing loss, like its undoubted association with the aging process, which makes it difficult for some people to acknowledge its presence and to do something about it (like getting hearing aids). The problem I have with the thoughtless association of the term “stigma” with hearing loss is that it fosters the development of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Label a hearing loss as a stigma often enough and this is exactly how the condition will be perceived by society in general and, because they are part of our society, by people with hearing loss themselves.
True, there was a time in human history when “deaf” people were indeed undeservedly stigmatized and denied full human rights because of their condition, when the deafness was deemed a heavenly punishment for some unknown, but real, transgression. Over the centuries, as our societies have evolved, deaf people themselves have – largely through their own efforts – dispelled the original stigma connotations of a profound hearing loss. Perhaps what we’re seeing now, with hard of hearing and late deafened people, is some sort of diluted descendent of this original application of the word “stigma.” It’s true that the meaning of words change over time and I doubt that anyone currently applies the term to people with hearing loss in its full, original, dictionary sense; nonetheless, these original definitions remain and are bound to influence our perceptions and thus affect current behavior.
Hard of hearing people of today are in a vastly different world and situation than congenitally deaf people were in years ago. For the most part, today’s hard of hearing people grew up with normal hearing and it wasn’t until later in life that a hearing impairment occurred. It seems to me that current attitudes towards a hearing loss and hearing aids coincide with, and perhaps reflect, the advent of wearable personal hearing aids. Previously, there was no really effective therapeutic tool that could directly address the hearing loss itself (except for ear trumpets and ear horns, and these were never popular or widely used). The affected individuals themselves were largely “invisible” (and not just the condition itself). But, now, personal hearing aids have changed the situation, and effective measures can be employed to reduce the impact of a hearing loss. People have been able to leave the closet. Paradoxically, however, the widespread availability of effective help, which also happens to be very visible, has called attention to a condition that had previously been virtually ignored by society, thus fostering the attitudes that bedevil us to this day.
Personally, it took me years to realize that a hearing aid was often viewed by much of society as the sign of a stigmatizing condition. My early experiences with amplification (going back nearly sixty years) were mostly positive and it took me a while, and only after I became an audiologist myself, to realize that my experiences were not typical. I received my first hearing aid at the Walter Reed Aural Rehabilitation program, along with about 25 or 30 other young men, during an eight week residential A/R program. We had no choice; we were simply issued these aids, ordered to wear them, and informed that we were lucky to have them. Unlike previous models, these were “tiny” mono-pack body-worn hearing aids (about the size of a pack of cigarettes). They helped us hear better, and we indeed felt lucky to have them.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that our explicit self-acceptance of the hearing aid likely precluded any negative perception by others. After receiving my first aid, I was stationed in North Africa and during that period visited many countries in Europe. I cannot recall an instance where I felt stigmatized by wearing my clearly visible hearing aid. Because I accepted its necessity in a matter-of-fact fashion, it was so accepted by the people I met. At the most, when questioned, I would say: “It’s a hearing aid that helps me hear better much like those glasses you’re wearing help you see better.”
Here’s Part Two