How to Help the Invisibly Disabled

creative shot of human ears on dark background

This post won’t be all things to all people. It’s not about those who have visible disabilities. It’s about those who share my invisible disability: hearing loss.

Recently, I got a haircut and highlights. It was my stylist, Lauren’s idea after I complained that my hair colour, though natural, looked dull.

As I sat with foil all over my head to let the formula do its thing, a couple came in for trims. I moved to a comfy chair and got caught up on emails.

The timing was brilliant. Lauren is a one-woman operation at Hair on the Harbour. When she finished the couple’s trims it was time to rinse my hair. Smart scheduling on her part.

When I got to the sink I said something like, “I couldn’t even hear what you were talking about.” With all of the wet products and a shampoo involved at the salon, I always remove my hearing aids and put them in my purse. And then Lauren said something that made me happy.

“They (the couple) said goodbye to you but you didn’t look up. I explained that you probably didn’t hear them because you didn’t have your hearing aids in.”

An Act of Kindness

To anyone with good hearing that might not seem like a big deal. To me, it was a wonderful kindness. Here’s why.

The next time someone seems to ignore those people I hope they’ll remember that moment and think, “Oh, maybe they didn’t hear us?” They might offer the benefit of the doubt. I can’t count the number of times I’ve either been without my devices or in a crowded space and I’ve missed what someone has said. It’s possible I wouldn’t notice they’re talking to me at all. It can seem rude. But if the other person knows it’s a hearing issue, they’re empathetic instead of annoyed.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone in every case should announce to total strangers that someone is hearing impaired. But Lauren and I have seen each other many times and talked about my hearing. She knows I’m not embarrassed or shy about this disability that’s out of my control. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone would be embarrassed about a physical condition that they can’t help having. Sawed off your own leg for fun? I might not be as sympathetic. But I was grateful that she let those strangers know that I wasn’t being rude. This is just my life.

Beyond the Ears

Everybody seems to have a grandparent who won’t put their hearing aids in. Significant hearing loss in older people is a warning sign of dementia IF the person refuses to treat it. The reasons involve withdrawing from interacting with others. Not perking up when someone speaks creates permanent changes in the brain, according to the research. If you don’t use the part that involves attention, you lose it.

That alone should be enough to get people out to an audiologist.

There’s also vanity. I got my first hearing aids when I was in my forties, a lot younger than most. But today’s hearing aids tuck behind the ear and they’re virtually invisible. And even if they’re not, who cares? I have a friend who has had to wear hearing aids as long as I’ve known her. (30+ years.) She was in her twenties and had those impossible-to-miss pink plugs in both ears. Aids are more expensive now but they also allow the wearer to hear more and do more. Just don’t shower or swim with them in. Been there, done that, paid the price.

Maybe you’ve seen a video of someone – a baby perhaps – hearing for the first time after receiving a cochlear implant. Like so many conditions and disorders, hearing loss doesn’t discriminate. (Google the video of a baby hearing his Mom’s voice for the first time. You won’t regret it!)

My Same Old Songbook

Hearing loss isn’t the worst thing that can happen. You adjust. I can obviously hear well enough with my hearing aids and excellent headphones to do my job well. I know several people who work in the audio space who are completely deaf in one ear. As I’ve written before, it has an upside: pure silence is sometimes a beautiful thing. Fireworks annoying you? Neighbours talking too loud? *pluck* *pluck* Not for me!

How many times have we heard about someone getting yelled at because they parked in an accessible parking spot and they don’t “look” disabled? MS, heart conditions and a long list of other issues don’t announce themselves at first glance. I’m sure that people mean well but they make life so much worse for the invisibly disabled by challenging them. (Mind your business. You’re not in charge of the world!)

It would be great if the world was geared toward the group that needs the most assistance. If everyone on TV spoke clearly and enunciated better for those with poor hearing. We had ramps to every building and curb, whether or not anyone in the area has asked for them. If every sign, menu – you name it – had a Braille translation or voice option within reach for the blind. I could go on. But what we can do is become a little more patient if someone doesn’t behave according to our expectations. Or how about this – not have expectations at all. Now, wouldn’t that be something.

15 thoughts on “How to Help the Invisibly Disabled”

  1. Acts of kindness are simple to perform but few and far between. You’ve always kept an eye on my posts for the various mistakes and that has always been appreciated.

    Summer’s here and I enjoy swimming in our outdoor pool. There were a group of teenagers in the pool the other day and I asked them if they could stay on the far half of the deep end so I wouldn’t run into them for I’m blind. While swimming another teenager joined the group and one of the others asked them to stay on the other side for I was blind. That type of recognition and understanding in younger people is rare, but very welcome.

    I appreciate everything you said in your post, been there, hits home. Simple acts of kindness can have value beyond words for the emotional well being of the individual but they can also be a double-edged sword on those occasions when based in the belief that you know best.

    1. Thanks for sharing that experience, Allan. I sometimes fix your comments because voice text is so unreliable! I know what you meant and what you said – just goes to show that AI isn’t quite there yet. 🙂

  2. I suffer from hearing loss too. I have hearing aids in both ears but sometimes, depending on conditions and background noise, I still have trouble deciphering what is being said. Loud restaurants make me feel like I’m going to have a panic attack! I have had so called customer service representatives yell at me saying “ I told you that already!” It’s frustrating. I forget that it’s a “disability” but do miss out on a lot even with the aids. One of the things that bugs me the most is hearing a motor or mechanical sound and not being able to figure out what it is! The fridge? The furnace? Something outside? Thanks for sharing Lisa! So much of what you said today…and often…hits home for me too! Have a great day!

    1. Thanks, Brenda. Hearing aids definitely don’t “fix” poor hearing. That’s a big revelation when you start wearing them, eh? I also have a lot of trouble hearing in loud restaurants. And I struggle with children’s voices and friends who speak softly. It’s good to know we are not alone! 🙂

  3. Hearing for the blind can also be challenging for we can’t see your face. According to various studies the ability to hear someone speaking to you is directly dependant on whether or not you have a direct sight line to the speaker.

    Here is a trick I use. If going to a restaurant I always try to sit at a corner table with a wall behind and to the side of me thus all sounds are coming directly towards me with two sides blocked off which will reflect the persons voice effectively amplifying it much like holding your hands behind your ears.

  4. You’re absolutely right. Not all disabilities are a visible or obvious as a wheelchair.

    Thank you for this reminder!

  5. Claire Cascone

    I have been suffering from hearing loss since Vertigo set in.
    Just waiting for my ENT to schedule a hearing test, but I know that hearing aids are in my very near future.
    I was just at a large family gathering on the weekend and it was the first time I found myself in that uncomfortable predicament of trying to react to conversations when I clearly missed half of what people were saying. I didn’t hesitate to tell them that I am “half deaf”, and to please repeat themselves. Frankly, I can’t wait to wear hearing aids.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with us, Lisa. Your blog topics are always interesting and often seem to coincide with things I happen to be dealing with.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Claire. Hearing aids make such a great difference. You will hopefully find ways to get around some continuing annoyances. I have four settings on mine for different situations and I can control the direction they “listen” in with my app. Allan’s suggestion above about sitting with your back to a wall is an excellent one. The other night, the noise behind me – remembering that the microphones for the hearing aids are on the BACK – was so deafening, it took me 90 minutes to clear my head once I got home. Anyway, you’ll figure it all out! 🙂

  6. Here is another tip which on occasions may offer some assistance.

    When talking on your phone or possibly listening to music or some type of broadcast using Bluetooth, Bone-Induction headphones may work. The transmitting speakers sit in front of your ears on the joint and transmit sound to your inner ear via your bones. This can give you hands-free use of your phone although I do know that many modern hearing aids do have Bluetooth which does something similar.

    1. Yes, Allan, those bone induction headphones are amazing! My brother bought me some and I prefer them to using Bluetooth with my hearing aids.

      Here’s a little side note about all of those Bluetooth capabilities. For example, listening to the TV audio through headphones sounds like a good idea – and it is if you’re alone. But I have found that it’s more of a pain than a benefit. If someone wants to talk to me while Bluetooth is enabled, I won’t hear them and switching back and forth is super tedious.

      Things like this remind me that they’re just “aids” and hearing loss won’t ever be “fixed.” It requires patience on everyone’s part.

      1. The blind love the bone induction headphones for it allows us to listen to the GPS on our phone for directions and at the same time leave our ears unblocked to hear the surroundings such as traffic around us especially when trying to cross the street. Best of both worlds.

  7. Our oldest has been deaf in one ear since a bad ear infection at 3. He has trouble hearing when there’s a lot of background noise and will automatically turn to see your face. We’ve been told a hearing aid will not work for him. I wonder if kind that Allan mentioned would help him. I will mention it to him. Thanks Allan!

    I worked as a dental hygienist starting in the late 70’s. We did not wear masks for the first few years. When we were mandated to wear them, it was amazing how many patients couldn’t “hear” me talking to them any more and I would have to raise my voice to repeat what I had just said. Without the mask, they could understand everything without me having to shout. Didn’t take long to figure out why. Obviously we read lips more than we realize.

    What I don’t understand is why stores have music blaring. I won’t go in to some, though I would like to, due to the noise pollution. Makes for an unpleasant shopping trip. Thanks for another enlightening blog.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Pam. Yes, I fully realized how much lip-reading I did once everyone started masking. I think – as you pointed out – most people count on seeing lip movements, even when their hearing is good!

      Erin mentioned a study on G and F recently that explained why restaurants are so loud. We drink and eat more. Maybe we buy more in loud stores? I find them super annoying, too!

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