Sometimes having a disability sucks. It isn’t always about the ableist attitudes of others, sometimes just living in a world where there are things other people can do that you can’t is really crappy too. Not to mention all of the technology that goes along with being disabled, whether it is a white cane, voice to speech or speech to voice software, a wheelchair, crutches or a hearing aid. Virtually any disability comes with some sort of technology that either marks someone as disabled or tries to mediate that disability.
For my hearing loss I use lots of different things depending on the situation I am in. When I’m at school or in bigger events I use sign language interpreters. For me that is amazing because I know ASL, and they are situations that a hearing aid can never cope with. Usually when I am in small groups, at home (no one in my family signs) or one on one with people I use a hearing aid, either with or without an FM system.
Hearing aids aren’t like regular ears or regular hearing. While most people can tune out the sound of a person turning the pages of their newspaper, or an annoyingly loud fan, a hearing aid catches all sound regardless of what it is and amplifies it. This means that a newspaper can becoming deafening or a fan can completely overpower a conversation. To try and fix this, we get even more technology, that is the FM system. The FM system has a microphone that you can move closer to the person who is talking so that you can cut out more of the background noise. It also has all these fancy programs that are supposed to make the person sound louder against the background noise too, but how well it works really depends on the person and the hearing loss and the way their hearing aid is programmed. For me it helps a lot in some situations, and in others, we’re still trying to work out all of the bugs in the system.
Hearing aids are definitely starting to evolve. They have become smaller and smaller. You can get hearing aids that fit inside your ear and no one would know that you are wearing one. Even a lot of the behind the ear ones are getting smaller. Most of the time though, hearing aids still come in 14 different shades of beige and black and brown. Hearing aid manufacturers continue to cater to the belief that hearing loss is something to be ashamed of and that the closer we can come to hiding and minimizing the effects of hearing loss the happier we will be. It’s kind of stupid because you’d think the number of times that we have to ask people to repeat themselves would be kind of a giveaway that we can’t hear, and that if people could see the hearing aid they might understand why rather than just get annoyed.
So, then there was the fateful day when I walked into my audiologist’s office to get my hearing aid. I’m a young person, I currently have bright pink hair, and at that time, my hair was bright purple. A beige hearing aid was not going to cut it. My audiologist, who is amazing, recognized this right away, and many lines of hearing aids were eliminated off the bat because they weren’t available in colours. Many others were eliminated because they didn’t have the features that I needed (like any conceivable way to listen to music with one good ear and one hearing aid). Finally, after a couple of weeks of going back and forth we found one that met all the requirements. It also was a behind the ear hearing aid and came in bright purple. If that wasn’t visible enough for me, it also came with a bright pink and green ear mold that sadly had to be swapped out for a clear one since I was getting too many ear infections. I’m still waiting for someone who can make me a multi-coloured acrylic ear mold.
As if this wasn’t visible enough, as I wore my hearing aid, it became even more colourful and decorated. First there were the hearing aid charms. They just slip over the tubing of the hearing aid, and it’s kind of like an instant charm bracelet. Then there were the strings of small beads wrapped around the tubing to make it even more colourful, the colourful gems and stickers put on the behind the ear part of the hearing aid, the silver FM boot, and eventually even coloured tubing. All in the name of personalizing this rather impersonal piece of technology and making it mine.
There is no way that anyone can fail to see the multicoloured mayhem going on on my ear, even with the distraction of bright pink hair. It makes a very loud statement about hearing loss and its relative visibility/invisibility. It challenges the idea that hearing loss is something shameful that needs to be hidden away. In fact, all the colours do the opposite and invite discussion. By making disability more visible it has been possible to comfortably bring up disability into the space between myself and other people. After all, when you’re talking about why something is pretty, it is pretty easy to demystify what that thing is and what it is used for, and what the benefits and limitations of it are. By calling attention to my hearing aid it allows me to call attention to hearing loss and Deafness in general, and try to make a world that is mostly invisible a little more visible to the rest of the world.