I have a confession...
Despite being confident and headstrong, when it comes to my hearing loss I’m the complete opposite. I’m shy and unassertive and this is more acute in the workplace or in situations where I don’t know people well.
When faced with a challenging communication setting (struggling to keep up with conversation; understand a person’s accent; or hear over loud background noise), rather than asserting my needs, I blame my lack of understanding on ditziness or tiredness. In this way I’m undercutting my value and self-worth - putting my happiness and personal development on the line.
I know a simple: “Hey, by the way, I have a hearing loss/wear hearing aids and you need to speak louder and clearer while facing me” is only a small ask, yet a hugely significant step in making sure I’m able to be the best version of myself.
So I’ve dedicated this post to exploring the reasons why I don’t bring attention to my hearing loss in the hope it will empower me to speak up more. I also want to shed some light on how difficult it can be for people with hearing loss to communicate their needs and find the courage to ask for support.
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So here are the real reasons why I shy away from being honest about my hearing loss…
The hearing aid taboo
Hearing loss is an invisible disability and therefore widely misunderstood and unrecognised. Despite affecting around 11 million people (of all ages) in the UK*, it’s most commonly associated with growing old and the elderly, and wearing hearing aids is anything but ‘cool’ or fashionable. There’s absolutely nothing appealing about a fiddly, clinical-looking device that sits like an alien host of the ear. Even my 83 year-old grandmother refuses to wear hers because “they look ugly”.
So it’s no surprise I feel anxious talking about my hearing loss, as I’m effectively exposing myself to the stereotypes and preconceptions of a hearing aid wearer. Having a disability is hard enough as it is, let alone drawing attention to it time and time again. Revealing my hearing aids makes me feel quite uncomfortable - it’s like asking me to strip down to my underwear in the glare of a spotlight!
Feeling unsure about how to communicate my needs - and when
My hearing loss is described as moderate to severe, which means I’m not deaf nor fully hearing. As a result, I hover precariously in the middle of the hearing spectrum, making my needs complex and the challenges I face hard to understand. Even I am still trying to figure out how best to navigate this ambiguous ‘middle lane’, so explaining my hearing loss and communication needs to others can be tricky.
It doesn’t help that I try so hard to immerse myself in the hearing world. At face value my disability can easily go undetected - my hearing aids are hidden and I make a conscious effort to be ‘tuned in’ and face people when they talk to me. And it may seem silly, but I feel like there’s never the ‘right time’ to tell people about my hearing loss - especially if I’ve spent some time pretending everything is fine and dandy, and then suddenly out of the blue make a confession. Sure, it would make sense to tell people straight away, but it can be tricky to slip such a sensitive issue into fresh conversation and make it a ‘thing’ when you’re trying to master the delicate task of small talk.
Fear of being vulnerable
While I may come across as confident, I’m quite sensitive and struggle to admit to feeling vulnerable - especially to people I don’t know well. A lot of this stems from my hearing loss, and despite being diagnosed 10 years ago, I’m still not completely comfortable with it and feel very insecure, so talking about it can be hard.
Furthermore, I worry a great deal that I will be treated differently or viewed with lesser regard if I tell people about my disability. Whether we realise it or not, in many ways life is still geared towards ‘survival of the fittest’ – particularly in the workplace and social realms where there’s a lot of pressure to conform, fit in, and be a certain type of person – so hiding my hearing loss often feels like the safest option.
But while talking about it can trigger a deep sense of fragility and fear, I know that pretending to be ditzy or tired is only making the issue worse, and my vulnerabilities more acute. Catch 22!
So what next?
Learning to live with my hearing loss is an ongoing journey. I doubt I will ever reach a destination of complete acceptance but I do know that acknowledging my hearing aids and being more assertive about my communication needs will dramatically shape my life and make things easier and less stressful in the long term.
It’s obvious I need to trust in people more and be open minded about their response. It’s very unhelpful and draining worrying about what other people will think. Instead I need to focus more on what I think, what I feel and what I deserve in order to be happy and fulfilled and better able to communicate.
As the saying goes, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be kind. Always”, and this is more meaningful to me now than ever. It makes me wonder, if we all opened up about our vulnerabilities, rather than fighting them, would we collectively be happier, more supportive and less consumed by the need to look and act a certain way? Would it help us to overcome our fear or shame of being different?
Food for thought.
*Stat from Action on Hearing Loss
How It Feels is a weekly blogs series which aims to shine a light on people’s stories, covering subjects where voices are rarely heard. If you want to get involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org