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The shame of wearing hearing aids

by Charlie Swinbourne

7th September 2009

Last week, a sales rep from an energy company called to ask us to switch our utilities. Unusually for someone who works in sales, she made it remarkably easy for us to understand what she was saying. She maintained eye contact, spoke clearly and seemed focused on every single word we uttered.
Person wearing an external hearing aid
There was something familiar about her, and halfway through the conversation I found out what it was...

She suddenly noticed my hearing aids and exclaimed: “Oh! You’re deaf too!”. For the next ten minutes, all talk of meter readings and kilowatt hours went out of the window.

All she wanted to know was how long my partner and I had been wearing hearing devices, how well we could lip-read and whether the NHS might pay for some in-the-ear devices for her – something more discreet.
Although she'd been deaf since birth, she hadn’t worn amplifying gear for years. This despite working in a busy office, speaking to people every day for her job, and living in a hearing family who she told us: "Hear really well, so it's hard for them when I miss what they're saying."

After a lot of deaf-related chat, we got back to energy prices, and through deaf loyalty – and admittedly, the hope of saving 10% on our energy bills - we signed up – watching her phone through our details to her call centre as if she’d learned every part of the process by heart. She explained she found it difficult to hear anything on the phone.
Hearing aid
I was impressed by how she managed to get by. But her reluctance to wear hearing aids made me wonder whether - as a proud wearer my whole life – I might simply be oblivious to what the general public really think of deafness.

The saleswoman was just one of a number of people I’ve found out about who are deaf, live in a hearing world (communicating through speech, rather than sign language), yet refuse to wear hearing aids.
This week I received an email from a hearing aid wearer who told me about bullying he faced from his colleagues that was so severe, he stopped wearing them for six years. He described feeling ashamed and fearful about wearing them.

Last month, I met a hearing woman who told me affectionately about her deaf grandfather. She explained that he often spoke loudly, used a lot of gesture (but not sign) and constantly missed everything people said around him. He also refused to wear a hearing device.

It's this latter story that seems most common. I hear versions of it all the time from people when they find out about my deafness. "Oh you’re deaf? My uncle was deaf!". When I ask "Did he wear hearing aids?", nine times out of ten they reply: "No, he wouldn’t wear them."

The portrayal of their relative often goes on to illustrate them as someone who seems to be living in a different world to the rest of the family, whether grumpy, quiet, or even wildly eccentric, traits surely (in my point of view at least) exacerbated by trying to live as a hearing person, when they are deaf.
While I'm positive about wearing an aid, it hasn't always been fun. At school, I remember walking down the corridor and hearing other students (bullies is a better word) whistling behind me, mimicking the sound of the piercing feedback my equipment sometimes made. I occasionally got some verbal abuse, linked to my hearing aids, but I can’t remember (and probably didn’t quite hear) exactly what these jibes were.

Although the devices had other downsides (being terrible at dealing with classroom background noise for example), I was committed to wearing them and making the best of their imperfections. Perhaps it helped that I’d worn them since I was too young to think about what other people thought.
My view is that people who refuse to wear hearing devices must be trying to avoid a stigma that they feel society has about deafness. Do they think society views deaf people as a bit stupid, thick, or dumb, simply because we sometimes mishear or don't understand what people are saying? Or is it a view that deafness is associated with old age, and being a bit past it?

Whatever it is that people are trying to avoid, the irony is that by refusing to wear hearing aids, and acting as if they are not deaf at all, they might inadvertently be making this view even worse by grinning and bearing it.
I'm not just concerned about the simple act of putting a hearing aid on. I'm also concerned that people avoid being open about being deaf.

If deaf, hard of hearing, deafened or hearing impaired people are embarrassed about wearing hearing aids, they're more likely to hide their deafness in other ways, deciding not to ask someone to repeat themselves, or admit to someone “I’m deaf, could you speak a bit more clearly and loudly?”.

Of course it’s not only hearing aids that people are afraid of being seen to wear. When JK Rowling invented Harry Potter, she was credited with making glasses more acceptable and cool among school children. So here’s hoping that when she’s done with the Potter franchise, she invents a child wizard who happens to wear hearing aids so we can all get over it, and feel fashionable and cool for a while.


  • 1. At 1:02pm on 09 Sep 2009, osteogenesis wrote:

    I paid privatly for an 'in the ear' aid, simply because my ears hurt terribly when using a normal, NHS aid while also wearing glasses. I need both to function so coughed up 2500 grand each. There is no shame in wearing an aid becuase its far more embarrasing not hearing when people are speaking to you!

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  • 2. At 8:43pm on 10 Sep 2009, smilingbackatme wrote:

    I've only just started wearing 'hearing instruments' -- my siblings and I are all genetically programmed to shout at each other increasingly, as we get older....

    I can understand the problem with childhood bullying; but, as an adult, I nearly ordered mine in bright red (but went for a nice blue, in the end, to match my eyes (tee-hee)) -- as I hold with both what the first poster said, and something Bob Holness said in an RNID publication: along the lines of us not being ashamed that we have problems with our eyes, so we wear (increasingly fashion-conscious) seeing aids -- so why should we be ashamed of wearing spectacles for our ears? [I have short hair, by the way.]

    NB: Now that I know what a difference they can make (and I paid a lot for mine, too...), I wish I HAD bought them in red. [That colour too often also matches my eyes....]

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  • 3. At 1:00pm on 11 Sep 2009, Cornishandy wrote:

    From the earliest age I have been lumbered with hearing aids. The first one was a large black box with a battery pack in a separate leather pouch. many children wore a sort of parachute harness with the aid smack in the middle of their chest and an inability to run anywhere without the whole contraption smiting them under the chin.

    Unsurprisingl;y they were not popular and you can imagine the older generation looking at such contraptions and thinking "Not for me, thank you!". Many hearing aid exhibitions of the time concentrated on the hidden and discreet aspects of hearing aids shaped like a brooch or built into a pair of Alan Whicker style glasses. There were many variations all emphasising discreetness. Not one of them ever advertised whether it was loud enough for severe hearing loss or in fact any reference at all to the job it was meant to do! The truth was, they were not very powerful and only about one step up from the famed ear trumpet!

    So I think from as long as half a century ago hearing aids got themselves a bad reputation. They are also a bluddy nuisance, there's no doubt about it. They are forever whistling, overloading, underpowering, making odd noises, getting wet in the rain, falling down the loo and running out of batteries.

    But also there's the stigma of being deaf. I once had someone say to me "I'd sooner die than lose all my hearing". I didn't believe it. It's not that bad for goodness sake! But there's no doubt that not being able to hear carries a severe stigma.
    What really, really annoys me is that the Deaf societies who claim to represent us have never managed to raise public awareness of deafness to the point where it is accepted by society.
    Not even in half a century! Must try harder!

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  • 4. At 6:28pm on 14 Sep 2009, NuttySurvivor wrote:

    I wear hearing aids but there are problems and I get frustrated. I have just had a pair of lovely clear ear moulds replaced with ugly opaque ones. Surely the NHS can do better than that? Also, my new hearing aids are nothing like as good as my old ones, despite being a brand-leader. I find it difficult to make out what people are saying and find it better taking my aids out and asking people to speak loudly.

    I don't know if private aids are better than this, but where I live, NHS aids are getting worse, not better.

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  • 5. At 02:17am on 16 Sep 2009, martynbutler wrote:

    Im 54 and self taught myself to Lipread until it was discovered at the age of 10 i was severely hard of hearing. A loud family and a quiet boy put in a class behind my year and then put at the back of the class so the noisy kids were up front near the teacher.
    I started wearing hearing aids at age 10 and hated them with a vengeance, people treated me like I was a "simpleton" as my grandfather called it.
    When behind the ear aids became available I was one of the first kids in the country to get them and the NHS supplied an amplivox aid. It was years later before I was allowed to have two. At last I had aids that were cool and I zoomed up a year at school - allowed to sit at the front and scraped by with an O level or two.
    Careers advisor's assured me that getting a supermarket job was ideal and to expect any more was just being silly.
    I stopped wearing hearing aids for 30 years.
    Sheer bloody determination and a laser like path into the technology of Film Television Theatre Lighting beaconed and I had a brilliant career in Theatre Cinema Advertising - running my own Laser Display company - and teaching Computer Graphics at Thames Valley University.
    As co founder of The Terrence Higgins Trust I appeared on many interviews and always managed to convince myself that nobody could guess I was deaf. Or was it simply the fact that I am allergic to hearing aid pink. ?

    My local audiologist listened to my story and suggested Clear Aids yep the body of the aid is transparent - the circuitry in gold is seen through the plastic - fantastic. Im the envy of every bluetooth mobile tech gadget freak in town - So ok im a 55 year old big kid with a new toy - but I have enjoyed wearing these aids over the past two years.
    Now I looped the TV audio (My neighbours are so grateful) and im enjoying others company more than ever.

    Im encouraged when I see Eastenders that have two young cast members wearing hearing aids and I wish we had more examples. Perhaps a hard of hearing detective that miss hears a conversation but gets the clue. If your deaf you will know what I mean ;)

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  • 6. At 1:28pm on 17 Sep 2009, smilingbackatme wrote:

    Talking of wearing boxes round your neck.... [And apologies to anyone that reads this post: it's a bit rambolic....]

    I have the Streamer that works with some of Oticon's hearing aids (my private ones); and too love the Bluetoothedness (real word, honest...) of it: letting me walk down the street looking even more of an expletive-deleted than the guys with their big, black, bad-ass, one-eared jewels, talking into thin air, with my little box dangling, glowing green, and flashing blue; and my own, personal wireless network. (The Streamer glows orange when my iPod's connected!)

    And I don't care... -- I really don't! -- what others think. I'm odd, anyway (mild Asperger, with go-faster walking stick...). And, being somewhat anti-social, perhaps it helps keep people at arm's length...?

    Seriously, though: it's a shame that Bluetooth headsets haven't helped hearing aids become fashionable. [Although I do like the sound of Martyn's gold circuitry! -- my NHS ones, which also have clear moulds (which I struggle to put in, because of problems with fine motor control) just don't look that 'kewl'....]

    I also use my Streamer to connect to my landline phone, and to my television (which I can have at a different volume to whoever else is watching -- jacked, wirelessly, straight into my head... -- my neighbours are also grateful!); and it has totally changed the way I interface with the world. Before, I was scared of the telephone: which was tough, seeing as how, some weeks, I can be house-bound. Now, it's a lifeline.

    I've always embraced technology, though: and, I suppose, I see my hearing aids, therefore, as just another part of my technological toolkit....

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  • 8. At 11:29pm on 18 Sep 2009, twinkleDustyC wrote:

    Hearing aids provide many benefits, but they do not restore hearing to normal, and that is a tough lesson to learn for many people who have a hearing loss.

    Speech is made up of different sound frequencies, and different types of deafness result in the loss of different frequencies.

    As an attempt to demonstrate, if you have lost the ability to hear consonants then you are likely to hear something along the lines of:

    _a__ a__ _i__ _e__ u_ __ e _i__

    Amplifying this through a hearing aid, will not produce clear speech

    If you only lost the ability to hear vowels, then what you would hear would be something along the lines of:

    J_ck _nd J_ll w_nt _p th_ h_ll

    The reality of course is that people will lose a mixture of frequencies. Hearing aids do not restore normal hearing, and will amplify the sounds frequencies that you can hear therefore speech can still sound unrecognisable through an aid. As a hearing aid user for 40 years, and cochlear implant recipient for 15 years, I can still only understand speech by lip-reading, and I feel that this has a lot to do with many people’s reluctance to wear them.

    I can with an aid (or the implant) detect various environmental sounds. I can not usually distinguish what these sounds are, so for example if someone knocks on the door, I will “hear” a noise, and go and investigate what it is, however I do not automatically know that it is a knock at the door. People have high expectations when they first recieve a hearing aid and when the aid does not live up to these expectations, it is not surprising that they end up unused in a draw.

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  • 9. At 10:41pm on 22 Sep 2009, Dale wrote:

    I think you've missed the point about most people who refuse to wear hearing aids. I think it is more personal pride; to wear a hearing aid means that you personally are incapable of living in the world without aid, and most people cannot ever accept that. When it comes down to it, people like to think they can live on their wits, and whatever life throws at them they can take it on the chin. Most people will have lived full lives like this, going deaf in relatively late age, and taking to a hearing aid then means surrendering everything that they've worked hard to achieve.

    Personally, like the poster, I've been wearing them since I was too young to worry about what other people thought, hence have no pride to lose by sticking them in. I've also had forty years to get used to them....

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  • 10. At 10:44pm on 22 Sep 2009, Dale wrote:

    What happened to the spaces after my full-stops? Makes me look like an idiot :-?

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