Fighting hearing aid stigma, one patient at a time

By Michael Lawrence, Audiology Student, De Montfort University, UK

“I suppose it’s another nail in the coffin,” said Rose*, one of my patients, after being told that hearing aids could help her struggles with communication. 

It saddened me that she saw hearing aids first and foremost as a “nail in the coffin” rather than something that could help her to hear her loved ones again, hear on the telephone again, enjoy participating in group conversations in a restaurant again, and so on. 

What saddened me more is that I’m not even a fully-fledged audiologist yet and I’ve already had several similar encounters while on placement. 

Initially, I couldn’t believe that it would be common for people to choose hearing aids based on how “invisible” they are, rather than the quality of technology – or even forego devices entirely out of fear of what others will think when they see them, a fear often rooted in the stigma surrounding hearing aids and aging.

For many people, this means putting off acting on their hearing loss and suffering in silence, often for years.

When I think about it though, I used to feel a similar way. I’ve worn hearing aids since I was four and felt stigmatized for many years. I stood out from my peers and not in a good way. I craved “invisible” hearing aids. 

It was only when I started contemplating becoming an audiologist that I realized having hearing aids could be something to embrace in this position rather than something to hide. As I explained in a blog earlier this year, seeing an audiologist who wore hearing aids was something I would’ve found motivating as a patient.

I am now happy to wear my hearing aids – I even wear them with pride. After all, hearing loss can’t be cured, so why should it be hidden? Especially considering that making our devices visible can lead to practical benefits. For example, I’ve noticed that people tend to face me and speak more clearly when they see I’m wearing hearing aids.

Having experienced the burden of stigma and how much better life is without it, I’m passionate about helping my patients overcome the same thing. For many adults, of course, it’s the connotation of aging that they want to avoid, which wasn’t the problem for me. But I still believe my experiences of wearing hearing aids puts me in a powerful position when speaking with patients such as Rose.  

Inspired by the Box, an Ida Institute tool, I try to work with these patients to weigh up the pros and cons of wearing hearing aids. Being able to put everything into perspective was something that helped me overcome stigma – and seemed to help Rose too.

I also sometimes share my experience of where the pros of wearing hearing aids far outweigh the cons to build a connection with the patient and gain their trust. I also use this opportunity to point out the fact that I wear hearing aids too, to prove it’s not just older people who have them. 

Of course, one (trainee) audiologist alone can’t solve the problem of hearing aid stigma. Every hearing care professional has a role to play, as do hearing aid manufacturers. Some hearing aid adverts seem to validate the stigma rather than tackling it, using terms such as “invisible fit” and highlighting the discreetness of hearing aids, signaling to the rest of society who may not need hearing aids (yet) that these are things that need to be hidden. Why can’t we prioritize sound quality and quality of life instead?

Once also associated with aging, glasses have now transformed into a fashion statement and a wearable that many people actually want. How great would it be if wearing hearing aids followed the same trend? 

One only needs to look around and see how many people flaunt their wireless earphones. This creates hope that hearing aids will one day be embraced as a path to quality hearing and worn with pride.

*not her real name

Image: Michael Lawrence