"You have something in your ear," a small voice piped up from behind me at the playground. I heard the voice, but wasn't sure she was talking to me. "Excuse me," she repeated with some alarm, "do you know you have something in your ear?" She was pointing at my ears with surprise.
"Thank you," I replied, "I do know. They are my hearing aids. They help me hear." This seemed to satisfy the little girl and off she ran. I turned away and continued playing games with my son.
I smiled as I realized how I had reacted. I wasn't embarrassed, ashamed or trying to hide my hearing aids. It was all matter of fact and no big deal. Maybe I had finally transcended the stigma of hearing loss I had learned as a child.
This was 5 years ago, but my hearing loss story began many years before.
I grew up as a child of hearing loss. My father had it but did his best to hide it from everyone, even those closest to him. He never discussed it, asked for anyone to speak up or to face him when they spoke, or even acknowledged it. It was an unmentionable, but his shame and embarrassment were apparent to us all.
My family's approach to his hearing loss didn't help. My mother would sometimes whisper to my sister and me behind his back, saying, "Don't worry, he can't hear us." Her attitude reinforced the idea that hearing loss was shameful and that my father should not expect any help from the family in dealing with it. I look back on this behaviour with remorse.
So when I began having trouble hearing as an adult, I was appalled and ashamed. I hid it the best I could, following in my father's footsteps. When I finally got hearing aids, I remember my mother's horror. "Do you really need to wear them?", she asked. Unfortunately, I did. I should not have been surprised by her lack of support since she treated my father's hearing loss the same way, but her attitude reinforced my need to hide. This went on for many years.
But then I had children. Since my loss was genetic I worried that I may have passed it onto them, as my father had done to me. I could feel my children's eyes on me, watching me. Every time I laughed when I hadn't heard the punch line or concealed my hearing aids behind my long hair, they learned hearing loss was something to hide. I needed to stop the cycle of shame.
It wasn't easy at first, but I started telling people about my hearing loss. I began asking for quiet tables in restaurants and rearranging the seating at family gatherings so I could hear better. I learned best practice communication tips for people with hearing loss and taught them to my friends and family.
Almost every time I revealed, someone would tell me about his or her personal struggles with hearing loss or that a close friend or family member had issues with hearing. I realized I was not alone and that I could make a difference for people like me.
I became a hearing health advocate, volunteering on the board of Hearing Loss Association of America. I also started to share my hearing loss story publicly, through writing and speaking.
And I changed my attitude. My hearing loss is a normal part of the family dynamic, just like my terrible sense of direction and my son's love of everything Star Wars. My children and I talk about how they can help me hear my best. I know they will be better prepared to cope with the ups and downs of hearing loss should they experience it themselves.
My hope is that my story will inspire others to accept their own hearing issues. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Nobody will care, and in fact, they probably already know. Plus, being open about your hearing loss takes the pressure off having to hear everything perfectly all the time. And what a relief that is.
Read more of my story at LivingWithHearingLoss.com.
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