Is Hearing Loss a Trick or a Treat?

The chill in the air means Fall is coming—and with it— Halloween. Despite the prolonged pandemic, I expect a stream of excited children at the door looking for treats. I love admiring the variety of costumes, but sometimes it is hard to tell what they are supposed to be. "What are you this year?" I ask, but I can't always hear the reply, especially if their costume includes a mask. This year might be even more challenging if the children are double masked—one because of COVID-19 and a second one for their costume! Luckily most conversations are limited to "Trick or treat" and "Thank you."

Hearing Loss Trick Treat

Masks present a serious communication challenge for those with hearing loss.

In all my years of celebrating Halloween, nobody has ever come looking for a trick, but often, things in life include a smattering of both tricks and treats. Hearing loss is no exception. My hearing loss comes with many struggles and frustrations, but it has also opened the door to immense personal growth. A yin and yang for the ages.

Hearing Loss as a Trick

It's easy to list the ways that hearing loss makes life more challenging.

1. Communication takes work

When you have hearing loss, communication is not something that comes easy. It takes effort. I often describe it like a game of Wheel of Fortune. Some of the letters are filled in, others are blank. We use speechreading, technology, repeats and other tools to help us fill in the gaps to create words or phrases that make sense in the context of the conversation. And still we are not finished, because then we need to reply! This listening effort uses incredible brain power and can lead to hearing loss exhaustion at the end of a long day of communication.

2. Hearing aids are often misunderstood

Hearing aids are magnificent wonders of technology that make our lives significantly easier, but hearing aids are not like glasses. They do not fix our hearing entirely. Hearing aids amplify sounds, but they don't make things crisper or sharper in the same way that glasses do. They also struggle to differentiate among sounds so in a noisy space, they amplify all sounds—including the background noise we don't want to hear—which can make it even more difficult to understand the speech sounds we seek.

3. Hearing loss often comes with stigma

Hearing loss is not well understood, so it often remains shrouded in stigma. People sometimes don't want to admit they have trouble hearing for fear they will be deemed old, slow, or out of touch. Society feeds some of this bias, but we also bring some of it on ourselves. Perhaps we have lost confidence because we feel less sharp or worry that others will be bothered by our constant requests for repeats. We hide our hearing loss and retreat. But this just creates more problems. It took me many years to battle through the stigma I felt, but once I realized that I was much more than my hearing loss and that I deserved to hear and be heard too, my life improved.

Hearing Loss as a Treat

While calling hearing loss a treat is probably going too far, there are silver linings that have had a profound positive impact on my life.

1. Meeting others I would l not have met otherwise

In our hearing loss documentary We Hear You, Holly Cohen says "The gift of hearing loss is meeting others I would not otherwise have met." This is also true for me. My hearing loss peers have become trusted friends and an incredible support network for the ups and downs of my hearing loss life. These relationships have made my life richer.

2. Embracing the power of advocacy

My hearing loss has turned me into an advocate for better communication access. When I self-identify at a movie theater or on a webinar and ask for captions, I show others how society can help us hear. When we advocate for ourselves, we are advocating for others too. And when we unite behind a cause—like free auto-captions on Zoom—we have incredible power to create positive change.

3. Greater empathy for other people's struggles

We can't know the truth of someone else's life just by looking at them. Because hearing loss is invisible, others can't see that I don't hear well. They might think I am rude or slow if I ignore their "pardon me" at a store or give an inappropriate answer to a question that is asked. I hope they will treat me with compassion and grace, and I try to give others the same benefit of the doubt. Each of us is likely struggling with something that goes unseen by others.