Why I Advocate for Inclusive Design in Hearing Loss

We Can Reduce Stigma While Providing More Access
By KR Liu

I was two-and-a-half years old when I was diagnosed with severe bilateral hearing loss and fitted with my first pair of hearing aids. Life wasn’t easy as a child with severe hearing loss — I was constantly picked on and bullied for my hearing aids and left out of social situations because I couldn't follow conversations or playground gossip. I felt isolated, different, disconnected, and incredibly alone.

This one-minute video provides a brief introduction to to KR Liu and highlights some of her work as an Inclusive Design Advocate. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.

Reaching my breaking point

In an effort of self-preservation, I kept my hearing loss to myself once I entered the workforce at age seventeen. My first job was at a consumer electronics company, where I'd spend hours on the phone making cold calls, providing technical support, collaborating with colleagues, and managing relationships with external organizations. I never disclosed my hearing loss to my peers because I didn't want to be treated differently, and because I didn't want my hearing loss to define me. I grew my hair long to cover my hearing aids, and I relied on lip reading and context to carry a conversation.

After a long day of work and lip-reading, the last thing I'd want to do was join my colleagues at a dimly lit restaurant with excessive noise. I often missed out on social functions as a result and the opportunity to connect with my colleagues in a more casual setting. I reached my breaking point almost a decade after I started that first job in technical support. I slowly became more comfortable talking about my hearing loss with others, and tirelessly pushed for the necessity of inclusivity efforts in design for people with disabilities as I progressed in my career.

Hundreds of millions of people need help

Many people around the world are uneducated to the point of ignorance about the deaf and hard of hearing community. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of developing hearing loss. And it is estimated that 15% of the world's population already has some degree of hearing loss. That is one in seven people. It is a global epidemic that has created an enormous social and economic burden for people around the globe.

So, what will happen to those individuals as they become members of our community? Will they have to fear being excluded because of a lack of affordable solutions and unattractive designs? Why are people so afraid to learn that we all communicate in different ways? Why does society regard hearing loss with such shame and stigma, yet if you wear glasses, you are hip and cool. It's not fair. It needs to change.

The bottom line is, we will all get older. We will all at some point be faced with hearing loss. I'm fortunate that I have the tools and access to ways to communicate. It took me years to learn how. I fear for those who later in life will have to learn, and because of lack of access and awareness, they will be left out, and people won't care.

“Inclusive design” provides access for everyone

I advocate for better access and better awareness of our community, so we can help be productive members of society and have the same opportunities as everyone else. I advocate for more inclusive design so that someone with hearing loss isn't excluded because of misunderstanding and lack of awareness of who we are.

  • Accessibility Marketing: I am currently the Head of Accessibility Brand for Google’s Brand Studio, where I advocate for the needs of people with disabilities to ensure inclusivity in Google’s products and services. And before that, I was the Principal Accessibility Marketing Lead at Amazon Lab126, which designed accessible products and services that have changed millions of people’s lives.
  • Captioning Everywhere: In 2018, I worked with Google to help build Live Caption, which got rave reviews for making real-time captioned audio on virtually any kind of digital media accessible to everyone who needs it.
  • Affordable Hearing Aids: In 2017, as the VP of Advocacy and Accessibility at Doppler Labs, I was an evangelist for one of the earliest entries into the hearables market. I also spoke on behalf of the hard of hearing community at the White House and the U.N. And I collaborated with Senator Warren’s team and lobbied with Congress to successfully pass the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, which promises to increase competition, promote innovation, and dramatically reduce the costs of hearing aids.
  • Smart Accessories with Hearing Aids: And in 2013, as the Head of Sales for Pebble Technology, I worked with a hearing aid manufacturer to demonstrate the potential power of integrating hearing aid technology with intelligent accessories such as Pebble’s smart watches to destigmatize hearing loss.

In all my experiences, I have strived to build sustainable pathways into design for the hearing loss community. The disability community is working hard to unlock their full creative potential, while the design community needs to define stronger pathways for people with disabilities to work in product design and all areas where there is a need for disability inclusion. And the possibilities for designing products and services that include rather than exclude people with hearing loss are virtually limitless.

Hearables and OTC hearing aids: a huge disruptive force

The future of hearing access is about to enter an entirely new era as the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 goes into effect in 2020. In the last few years, hearables have become a disruptive market that is evolving and changing. And a legal market for over-the-counter hearing aids will only accelerate the development and availability of hearing devices designed for millions of people with hearing loss who are currently excluded.

Lower costs and easier availability of hearing aids will allow more consumers than ever to benefit from hearing assistance. And with voice-response and activation, integrated biosensors, artificial intelligence, and organic integration with the entire world of information and services on the internet, hearables are only just starting to demonstrate the possibilities for inclusion. I see a future that removes barriers of communication for people with hearing loss and leaves no one behind. I see a future where I can walk into a room or a noisy restaurant, and the devices in my ears know what I want to hear and what I don't.

Hearing devices will be easily accessible and financially obtainable. And the stigma of wearing hearing devices will gradually become a distant memory. In fact, there will be so many options that people will own multiple devices, like collecting sneakers or jewelry. As a fashion statement and a reflection of who we are, what we wear in and on our ears will finally become a vehicle for inclusion rather than exclusion.

The work has only just begun

Looking back on the milestones of a twenty-five-year career, I've realized something ironic: my hearing loss that I struggled so much with as a kid, empowered me to bring forth change in this world. As I further explored my vulnerability and personal experience as a disability inclusion advocate in the technology sector, my new community of lifelong friends and respected colleagues began to grow in unexpected and exciting ways. The people I looked up to have become my mentors. People who were hiding their disability are now proud advocates alongside of me.

Our work is only just beginning, and we must continue to work together to cultivate an environment that genuinely celebrates and practices diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility in design. It's about the needs of the people and understanding how technology can give them independence and, most of all, freedom to be who they are. I will continue to make it my life’s work to be a voice for those who feel like they don't belong, and I hope you'll join me along the way.