Would a television show depict a blind character bumping into things for a joke? Or use a person in a wheelchair’s difficulty navigating a tight space as a punchline? Of course not! Not only would this be disrespectful, but it would also not represent reality. People with disabilities are not incompetent, bumbling, or embarrassing.
So why is it still okay to make a character with hearing loss the brunt of the joke? For example, the befuddled portrayal of fan-favorite Steve in ‘And Just Like That…’ The first time we see him he is fiddling with his hearing aids asking “What?” with a perplexed look on his face. Next he is searching for one of his hearing aids in the sofa cushions so he can converse with his wife.
Now it’s my turn to ask “What?” Who would keep an expensive life-changing device in the sofa cushions? This unrealistic portrayal helps perpetuate the stereotype that people with hearing loss are somehow foolish or out of touch and may keep people with hearing loss from seeking the treatment that they need.
It certainly did for my father and for me.
My hearing loss journey began well before I began experiencing hearing loss myself as I watched my father struggle with his own hearing issues. Powerful societal stigma forced him to keep it a secret from almost everyone. At parties he would be found sitting alone, preferring isolation to the risk that he might answer a question incorrectly and that his hearing problems would be discovered.
He used hearing aids but hid them behind long sideburns so they would not be seen. He never asked for someone to repeat something he hadn’t heard or to swap seats with someone so he could communicate better. Over time he drifted away from everyone he loved and struggled at work, as the stigma overpowered his ability to ask for help.
I internalized this stigma so when it was time for me to get my own pair of hearing aids in my mid-20s, I hid them and refused to speak of them. I laughed at jokes I hadn’t heard and avoided friends and clients that were harder for me to hear. I was following in my father’s footsteps of shame and isolation.
But once I had children of my own this all changed. I saw them watching me hide my hearing aids and being embarrassed by them, just as I had watched my father. Because my hearing loss is genetic, I worried that I may have passed it on to them. I knew I needed to break the pattern so that my children thrive rather than hide should either of them develop hearing loss as a young adult like my father and I did.
I began volunteering at hearing loss organizations and for the first time, met other people with hearing loss. I quickly realized there was nothing shameful about it. Many of them were leading incredibly successful lives despite the challenges of hearing loss. They loved their hearing devices because they kept them connected to the world. I began to see the stigmas for what they were — inaccurate stereotypes that had lingered far too long.
Since I came out of my hearing loss closet, I have been active as an advocate for people with hearing loss. I write a popular weekly blog Living With Hearing Loss, where I share the ups and downs of my hearing loss life and helped create, We Hear You, an award-winning documentary that shares the true lived hearing loss experience.
It’s not all unicorns and sunshine, but it is possible to live a fulfilling and successful life with hearing loss. My upcoming book Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss (co-authored with Gael Hannan) lays out the best path to living successfully with hearing loss that we have found.
It already takes the average person 7-10 years to do something about their hearing problems. Negative portrayals in the mainstream media do nothing to shorten this window. It’s time to put hearing loss stigma to bed. Here’s how you can help.
1. Normalize hearing loss. Discuss hearing loss like any other characteristic about a person. If you are comfortable with hearing loss, others will be too.
2. Take steps to live well with hearing loss. Let people know about your hearing loss so they can help you communicate in the best way possible. Use devices and other strategies like lip-reading to enhance the residual hearing you have. Don’t be afraid to ask for hearing assistance in public spaces. It is our right to participate fully.
3. Vote with your feet. According to Hearing Loss Association of America, almost 50 million people in the United States have hearing loss — this is a lot of potential consumer spending. If people with hearing loss are not treated with respect, take your business elsewhere.
Every time I mention my hearing loss, I am helping to break down walls that may prevent others from living well with their hearing loss. The same could be true for you too.