Eyes And Ears: So Different? [en]

As the founding editor of Phonak’s community blog “Open Ears” (now part of “Hearing Like Me“) I contributed a series of articles on hearing loss between 2014 and 2015. Here they are.

Since I started spending so much time thinking about hearing loss and hearing technology, one of the things I’ve obviously been thinking about it social stigma related to hearing loss. Stigma is immediately cited as the reason people wait so long to get fitted, and the reason for which “invisible” is a great quality for a hearing aid. (Not everybody agrees, though.)

Corinne with glasses
Photo credit: Corinne Stoppelli

In an attempt to wrap my head around some of these issues, I’ve been trying to make parallels between eyes and ears, glasses and hearing aids. Why is “not hearing well” considered so differently from “not seeing well”? Saying “there’s more stigma” is not really an answer. Social stigma comes from somewhere, right?

I think the main thing we need to consider here is that hearing loss impacts our relationships to other people, whereas visual loss (!) mainly impacts our relationship to the world. If you have trouble seeing, you will stumble, you will not be able to read the signs, you will not recognise objects (maybe even people), but you will not be prevented in a significant way from interacting with others. Whereas with hearing loss, even “a bit” of it can mess up relationships: hearing loss can mean you pass for rude, or stupid, or uncaring, or distracted, or uninterested — because you just couldn’t hear what the other person thought you did.

I think this is the deep, social root of the issue. Being short-sighted isn’t perceived as a disability. It’s a reasonably normal, common condition. In Switzerland, your health insurance covers your glasses to some extent. If you’re “short of hearing”, however, it immediately falls under the “disability” label. What financial contribution there is to your hearing aids (if you’re entitled to it) comes from the Invalidity insurance.

To reinforce this, glasses are “in your face” visible and all over the place, whereas hearing aids go unnoticed most of the time. Since I was fitted, my keen eye for detail has been scanning ears in public transport and supermarkets. There are actually lots of people with hearing aids out there, but if you’re not paying attention, you won’t notice them!

One thing that has been bugging me a lot is how there is a linguistic double-standard for ears and eyes. We have a specific word for those things we put on our nose to compensate for bad eyesight: “glasses”. But what words do we have for those devices we wear in or on our ears? “Hearing aids.” I’ll probably do a proper article about the language issue, actually. Stay tuned 😉