By Naomi Smart
Hearing loss can be difficult to wrap your head around if it’s something you haven’t experienced. It cannot really be simulated by sticking your fingers in your ears, for example, or just by wearing headphones. Whenever somebody asks me about my own experiences, I tell them to turn around, and then I mumble something fairly quietly – I feel that this is the closest a fully hearing person can get to the muddled sounds I often hear in daily life. The truth is that deafness can be wildly different for each individual who experiencesit, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ definition for deafness.
According to statistics from Action on Hearing Loss, there are 11 million people with hearing loss in the UK alone, which works out to about 1 in 6 individuals. These numbers surprised me when I first heard them, because that meant that far more people near me shared my experiencesthan I realised, but all too often our society views deafness with an ‘all or nothing’ model. People who are Hard of Hearing don’t always feel they fit into the d/Deaf community, and often have their struggles invalidated by those around them who consider them ‘annoying’ – in reality, though, having partial hearing comes with its own, unique set of challenges.
I personally have worn hearing aids from a very young age due to an anatomical issue in the structure of my ear, and whilst hearing aids have changed my life in many ways, there are still struggles I face daily, even when wearing them.
For myself and a lot of my d/Deaf friends, our hearing aids are barely noticeable. The visible parts are generally clear or flesh toned, and if, like me, you have long hair these are concealed even further. In many ways, of course, this is brilliant. With the development of smaller, less noticeable devices, people are growing less and less ashamed of taking steps to aid their hearing loss, and I really do believe that we are moving towards a society which views hearing aids similarly to glasses – as an aid rather than a limitation.
For me, however, these discrete devices often cause one key dilemma; should I enter into an exchange or conversation telling people that I am hard of hearing, or should I simply wait, and only explain my hearing loss after spending 10 minutes asking them to repeat themselves?
Often, if I’m ordering food or coffee, in any shop, or engaged in another short interaction, I tend to tuck my hair behind my ears, and often find myself leaning forwards to make my hearing aid visible. These shorter, temporary conversations can cause a LOT of stress and anxiety for members of the d/Deaf community, and by clearly marking myself as a part of that group I feel that I reduce potential awkwardness. In my own experience, I’ve found that retail and service staff seem to speak particularly clearly once they have noticed my hearing aid, which I’m incredibly grateful for!
This dilemma, faced by many Hard of Hearing individuals on a daily basis, raises greater questions for the d/Deaf community and its placein society; how do we want our experiences to be presented in this world? Do we want to blend in, and be treated no differently to any other individual, or is it important that we are recognised as a community – a group of people with shared challenges and experiences?
When it comes down to it, these choices may well be simply two sides of the same coin – central to both outcomesis the need for understanding and awareness. Through educating others about a life with limited sound, we can not only allow the Hard of Hearing community to be treated equally, but also develop an awareness of our struggles, and what we may find challenging in life.
However you personally may feel about this dilemma, the key impression is that being ‘different’ is not a weakness. Nobody should feel as though they would rather struggle in life than have their experiences heard and understood. In an opinion shared by many of my d/Deaf friends, hearing aids should be viewed as enablers – devices which allow us to exist and interact in this world with the least difficulty possible, and not as a sign of inability or restriction.