Even with all the medical and scientific advancements, the question, ‘is wearing a hearing aid a disability?’ consistently comes up in our thoughts and conversations with others.
Has someone ever told you? “I’m surprised. You don’t sound and look deaf at all!” It is a typical response we would get when speaking to someone who has just found out we have hearing loss. Consequently, this comment is so awkward on the receiving end. It’s filled with perceptions and biases that lead us to believe that there is universal reasoning behind what it means to be a person without hearing.
Hearing aids help you hear in various places and allow you to communicate orally with people. While they are devices with many flaws and not even close to perfect, they don’t define or make you a person with a disability. I believe what defines you as disabled is when the environment makes it difficult to belong. For instance, you find yourself in a place or situation where nothing can improve, no matter what you do. In these cases, you continue to be challenged with hearing despite wearing hearing aids, upgrading to a cochlear implant, or buying assistive devices. And you continue to struggle to partake in the activities. It’s in these moments in life when you feel you have a disability.
Remember the last time you sat inside a restaurant fully packed with people? As people are chatting at their table, the noises around you rise and bounce around. Increasingly making it difficult for you to hear or follow along with your friends or family conversation. You’ve attempted many ways to get into the conversation. Still, it was physically impossible for you to do anything to improve the situation. Sure, you could speak to the restaurant owner and ask them to make everyone whisper. Or you can tell the owner that he needs to remodel the space to make it easy for you to hear.
When no laws regulate people to make accommodations for you, all you can do is nothing. So, sit quietly, not engaging in the conversation or faking it for as long as possible.
While you make all the attempts for change, the environment and people around you are not changing. No one is meeting you halfway. This is a debilitating experience because you are stuck, and there are no other options you can take to improve the situation. This is what leads to one having a disability. However, sometimes it’s all perceptions.
There was one time during American history when deafness was a cultural norm. Before the 1950s, Martha’s Vineyard, now the most affluent town in America, was a community where disabilities didn’t exist. Many deaf people were living among the hearing at Martha’s Vineyard. Originally immigrated from Britain, British Settlers came in the 1600s, and many had hereditary deafness, passed along from generation to generation.
Martha’s Vineyard became the earliest deaf community that had influenced American Sign Language (ASL). Furthermore, what was so unique about this community was that everyone signed. Sign language was the primary form of communication in the community. No one living in the town at the time could tell who was deaf and who was hearing. It was so natural to connect using ASL. Visit the grocery store, the schools, the banks and everywhere you went, sign language was how people communicated. This way of life lasted until the 1950s.
At Martha’s Vineyard, no one had a disability because life was effortless without needing to hear. Even if you had a hearing aid, you wouldn’t need it unless you had to travel far. But your life in Massachusett was free of the barrier.
When we associate ourselves as disabled, it is often based on society’s standards. However, what’s considered normal, has its cultural context. Surely, at Martha’s Vineyard, not one person with hearing loss fit ever thought they matched the definition of a disability, and no one thought of themselves as one.
Disability was once classified in one group with people who were prisoners and homeless in the early 1800s. This group was defined as people believed to be “unproductive” in the capitalist system and often excluded from society.
The goal of capitalism was to establish social norms. It also provides purpose for what one can do with their life when one wakes up every day. Those who were believed to be disabled were people who couldn’t participate in the capitalist world. To be disabled means you can’t work. You were considered inefficient if you couldn’t work or do anything to help improve or advance society.
Even though we continue to live in a capitalist society, some of that belief still holds true in some cultures. We work for money and spend money to acquire what we need and want. We praise people who work hard and are independent and those who are lazy and dependent.
Doctors once viewed mental and physical disability as a failure to not participate properly in the economy. They were rewarded for encouraging more people to work and building a system that aims to fix people with disabilities. The main focus of medicine was on helping people reach the defined meaning of ” normal.” Hearing aids, cochlear implants and restorative hearing are efforts to convert people to the unrealistic perception of a perfect being.
Each government in every country has its own definition of what it means to be disabled. These definitions are based not on science but on what the community perceives as different from their cultural norm.
In the US and Western societies, to have a disability is similar to that under the American Disability Act (ADA). There’s no medical context to the definition. The definition is open and reflective of what one view of themselves and their life experiences. Whereas the World Health Organization (WHO) definition is different: “‘Disabling’ hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 35 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear.” WHO appears to think in lines of medicine because that’s their culture, and their work revolves around health and medicine.
In North America, you can have a 20 DB hearing loss, wear a hearing aid, and still be considered disabled. Should you be in a challenging situation where you can’t engage and participate in the activities you want to. This definition creates social programs where governments provide resources to foster more participation and support for people with hearing loss and the community they live in.
As the government definition influences what is classified as a disability, it creates criteria for who can receive disability benefits. From the capitalist viewpoint, the government needs more people to work to keep the economy going. Social funding that encourage people on the pathway to employment are available to help break the barriers people with hearing loss face daily. These can include access to disability tax credits, funding to purchase assistive technologies or funding for hearing aids.
Your insurance or medical coverage would have its own preference for what disability means and if your hearing aids will be covered. So again, many decisions are influenced by Capitalism, not always based on your quality of life.
In reality, everyone has a disability of some sort at one point in time. We all have moments where we find ourselves in situations where we join along, fit in and engage. But for some of you, the disability is more pronounced when the environment that you live in makes it harder for you to participate and gain access.
Suppose your environment isn’t inclusive to allow you to fully participate. Likewise, you’re unable to work because your hearing aids are ineffective for your work. Also, imagine if you find that your community has its own perception of you wearing hearing aids. All these experiences influence whether you are disabled because you wear hearing aids.
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