When was the last time you were around someone who was hard of hearing? How did you feel when you were constantly having to repeat yourself? Did you lose your patience? Did you start to speak more harshly to that person? Or did you realize that they were truly impaired and treat them with more compassion? I think, more often than not, we tend to go towards the ‘impatient’ when trying to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired. But did you ever think what it must be like for them?

  • they have to ask people to repeat themselves constantly…what? what? what?
  • they cannot hear themselves well and may tend to mumble making the other person ask what? what? what?
  • they can no longer enjoy music, television, movies, plays, concerts, dinner table conversation, etc.
  • they can no longer hear well when speaking to their physician, their neighbors, the checker at the supermarket, the sound of their children or grand-children’s laughter, words of love spoken by their spouse or sweetheart.
  • They can no longer handle regular aspects of life that involve using the telephone (calling the bank or credit card company, dealing with utility companies, calling on a craigslist ad, calling a friend to make plans for a lunch date, etc.

Watch this five minute movie and get a little taste of what it might be like to live as a hearing impaired person.

These are just a few of the “side-effects” of hearing loss. Perhaps that hearing loss goes untreated for any number of reasons: lack of ability to pay for medical treatment, misdiagnosis by geriatricians (often someone is diagnosed with dementia before being checked for untreated hearing loss), lack of recognition of signs of hearing loss by therapists (many veterans being treated for PTSD also suffer from hearing loss and/or tinnitus), denial that something is actually wrong, embarrassment to seek treatment because of ongoing stigma and shame still associated with hearing loss (yes, even now in 2016).

All of these factors and more can lead an even more debilitating side effect: depression. In fact, depression is roughly three times higher among people with hearing loss. The worst part is that the person suffering from hearing loss may not even put two and two together to realize that their hearing loss is having a huge impact on their self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, or frustration tolerance.

Even among health care providers and insurers there is a surprising lack of compassion or common sense when working with hearing-impaired and deaf people. Oftentimes, the hearing-impaired person needs and interpreter present at medical appointments. Or they request to have communication via email or text (because they cannot use the phone due to their inability to hear…duh) only to have those requests ignored by their physicians and/or insurance providers. Missed appointments and, subsequently lack of treatment, further exacerbate any depression they may be experiencing. They are further alienated simply because they require a different form of communication.

Recent years have seen a dramatic decrease in mental health services for people with hearing loss. Two major mental health facilities in California have closed: Saint John’s Mental Health Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People in Santa Monica (Los Angeles county) and University of California, San Francisco Center on Deafness (San Francisco county). Both of these long-standing institutions were closed which is indicative of the progressive silencing of a greatly under served community – the hearing impaired residents of California. Luckily, the UCCD found a smaller replacement space at the Felton Institute in San Francisco. Saint John’s was not so luck and, in fact, there is currently no public mental health services for people with hearing loss in Los Angeles County. From San Luis Obispo county southward to the southern border of California (and all the inland counties, there’s roughly a population of 30 million people. That means that up to 6 million people in southern California alone may be experiencing deafness or hearing loss with many, many of them also dealing with increased risk for depression and no outlet to seek counseling or therapy.

Essentially, every person with hearing loss could probably benefit from some form of counseling and therapy – from the child who struggles to understand the words around the family dinner table or to find classmates who don’t ridicule her; teenagers who just want to appear ‘normal’ and so bluff their way through social situations; young adults trying to find their place, perhaps straddling between the hearing and non-hearing world; even the older adult who experiences hearing loss later in life who must learn to adapt to their new situation at work and at home.

If we want to minimize the stigma of hearing-impairment we must view counseling as a ‘growth experience’ versus trying to ‘fix someone’. The therapy should be about building a strong toolbox of coping skills to manage and navigate daily life. Another great way to build awareness and de-stigmatize hearing loss comes in the unlikely form of a fashion statement. Many hearing aid manufacturers are producing fun, colorful, or themed hearing instruments that make a statement instead of trying to blend in and not be seen. Many a young person can be seen sporting superhero-themed or bedazzled hearing aids.

One thing you can do is just be AWARE. Don’t treat a hearing-impaired person as if they were mentally deficient or deserving of scorn. No one deserves to be treated in a manner that is anything less than respectful. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, walk a mile, and be kind.

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