When I heard (excuse the pun) of the controversy about Fidel Castro’s hearing aid being photoshopped out of official photographs of him meeting other world leaders, I wasn’t surprised.
Glasses make people look more intelligent, don’t they? Like you read a lot, like you’ve burned the midnight oil in the library, or stared at a computer screen all your life. But the same can’t be said of people’s perception of hearing aids.
These pieces of hard beige plastic, with rubber tubes running into your ear, are seen as making it look like you’re getting on a bit, like your senses are starting to fail on you. Hearing aids are not connected with authority, leadership, and saying the right thing, and this perception problem stretches from world leaders down to ordinary people on every street.
One in six people are deaf to some degree. Yet people are always telling me about their uncles, grandmothers, and parents who have suddenly started watching TV really loudly, and are struggling to follow a whole conversation, but still, amazingly, refuse to wear hearing aids.
One friend of mine has spent years telling his father (an actor) that he suspects he might have lost some of his hearing, but his father’s reply is that it’s everyone else who has the problem – they’re “not enunciating properly.”
Being in denial of your deafness isn’t limited to older people. A couple of years ago, an unusually deaf-aware sales rep for an energy company in her early twenties knocked on our door. She maintained eye contact, spoke clearly, and used a lot of gestures to make herself understood. But we soon realised she wasn’t just deaf-aware, she was deaf.
Out of deaf loyalty, we switched to her company, then watched, staggered, as she phoned in our details to close the deal, while being barely able to hear the call. She had remembered every step of the automated process. She told us she had never worn hearing aids.
Here’s some stats: 2007 report found that while 15% of people in the UK aged from 55-74 have a hearing loss greater than 35 decibels, only 3% wear hearing aids. In total, it was found that 3.4 million people could benefit from wearing hearing aids, but do not (Anovum – EuroTrak UK 2010).
That’s an awful lot of loneliness, confusion, and boredom (not to mention neighbours disturbed by televisions being watched at top volume).
What’s always strange for me is that these two pieces of plastic containing various electronic components, which accompany me every waking moment of my life, and that I see as my best friends, are seen so differently by other people.
We’ve had our moments – when I was two, I put them down the toilet (fortunately my mum found them before I could flush), and when I was a teenager, I grew my hair long to hide them, but now, I wear my hair short and my hearing aids with pride – they’re normal to me, just part of who I am.
That said, I know I’m lucky that I’ve always heard this way. The artificial sound of hearing aids – so everyday to me – can sound quite alien and unsettling for people who are deafened in later life.
Just rooting through the cutlery drawer can be excruciating to hear. Your own voice can sound robotic at first. And background noise is hard to tune out. This is because hearing aids do not automatically correct your hearing, as glasses correct short-sightedness. Your brain has to make sense of the new sound and that process can take weeks or even months.
So, part of the problem is the adjustment period, going from natural hearing to electronic hearing. But then there’s the stigma. Why is it that people would rather be thought of as being eccentric, forgetful, or random, becoming, in fact, the very stereotype of an older deaf person that they are trying to avoid, than persevere with hearing aids?
Vicki Kirwin, an audiologist with twenty years experience, told me: “unrecognised hearing loss has an impact not just on the individual but on their relationships, social lives and employment. Hearing aids are often associated with the elderly and this in itself can make people reluctant to seek help or want to admit that they may benefit from wearing one. Others think that mishearing things now and again is just a normal part of ageing and nothing can be done.”
Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of visible role models who wear hearing aids. Where are the hearing-aid wearing presenters or actors on TV? Where are the famous celebrities who are ‘out’ and proud, with a piece of plastic proudly mounted on their ears?
When JK Rowling created Harry Potter, she was credited with making glasses much more ‘cool’ and acceptable for children in schools. I can’t help but wish she’d only given Harry hearing aids instead, so that today, we’d see more people wearing them with pride.
Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My Song, Coming Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.
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