Today’s blog is written by Stacey Lim, AuD. PhD, CCC-A. Stacey is an assistant professor of audiology at Central Michigan University. Her areas of specialty are pediatric and educational audiology, cochlear implants, and aural rehabilitation. Stacey is co-curator of a museum exhibition, (dis)ABLED BEAUTY: the evolution of beauty, disability, and ability, which focuses on creatively and artistically designed apparel, assistive devices, and prostheses for people with disabilities. She was born with bilateral, profound hearing loss, and currently wears a cochlear implant and hearing aid, and her preferred hearing aid color is purple.
by Stacey Lim, AuD
Why does fashion matter? Sometimes, fashion may be thought of as frivolous and superficial. But consider this: How do you express your own personality and identity in a way that is immediately tangible? Often times, it is through the types of clothes we choose to wear, the colors that we pick out—and in doing so, we are able to make ourselves as visible or invisible as we choose to be.
Hearing loss is one of the most invisible disabilities and has had a significant amount of negative stigma or stereotypes surrounding it. The “hearing aid effect” has been associated with the perception of people with hearing loss as less intelligent, having lower achievement, having an undesirable personality, and to be considered less attractive (Cienkowski & Pimentel, 2001). Because of the persistent negative stereotypes surrounding hearing loss, a large number of hearing aids have, historically, been designed in a way to conceal hearing loss. Examples of these were hearing aids that were disguised as jewelry or eyeglasses, or were made to be more invisible. Some of these hearing aids, including a large number of hearing aids available today, are designed to blend in with one’s hair color or skin color.
As children with hearing loss grow up, they begin to develop their own social identities and how they feel about their own hearing loss. Blood (1997) has found that other children’s perceptions of a classmate’s hearing loss can be influenced by how the child with hearing loss views him or herself. In other words, if the child views his or her hearing loss in a negative way, others may view that hearing loss negatively, too. Moreover, adolescents may select hearing devices based on how they think their peers perceive them (Kent & Smith, 2006). Thus, peer acceptance can contribute to the child or adolescents’ desired appearance, which influences their own level of self-esteem. Adolescents with hearing loss will often times dress like “hearing students” (Van Gurp, 2001) to better fit in with their peers. Fashion has been a way for students with disabilities to develop their own sense of self-worth, belonging, and peer acceptance (Kidd, 2006).
Parents can be influential in a child’s own self-perception—it is not uncommon for parents to be concerned about the appearance of hearing aids and how others may view their children due to their hearing aids (Sjoblad et al., 2001). Interestingly, social support has been associated with hearing aid usage (Singh, et al., 2015). In supporting a child with hearing loss, then, it may well be critical for a parent to encourage the child to pick out the colors of his or her earmolds and hearing aids, and to be excited about those color choices. In doing so, parents can set the stage for the child to develop a stronger sense of self-confidence, comfort, and hearing aid ownership. Even children begin to develop a sense of self-esteem based on appearance at a young age, which can influence their own self-esteem as they get older (Harter, 2000).
Being able to be open about one’s disability, and to show it off confidently and proudly to their peers, reduces the amount of self-stigmatization (Corrigan, et al., 2013) and can potentially reduce the amount of negative perceptions from others. As a result, individuals are more likely to be stronger advocates for their own needs. This may well include children with hearing loss, as we want them to develop into independent adults who are able to advocate for their own needs in school, the workplace, and recreational activities.
Rather than blending in, hearing aids can stand out and become fashion statements that shout loudly and clearly: I have a hearing loss, and I am proud of who I am because of my hearing loss.
There are different ways for children, adolescents (and even fashionable adults) to flaunt their hearing aids and cochlear implants! Some come in different colors of the rainbow. Different earmold manufacturers have different color options for earmolds, and some will have options to mix in glitter or different color combinations. Although not as well-known, earmold tubing may be available in different colors besides clear and skin-tone. In addition to choosing colorful hearing aids or cochlear implants, there are other options available. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of different options for customizing hearing aids even further.
- Some of these include items such as Hayleigh’s Cherished Charms (http://www.hayleighscherishedcharms.com), which were designed by a teen who has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. These charms slide over the tubes of hearing aids and come in various designs. There are also tube twists that are available in different colors, which can be put on earmold tubing. Some of Hayleigh’s designs can also be worn on cochlear implants as well.
- For something functional and colorful, EarGear (gearforears.com) is another option. These are made of an acoustically transparent fabric, which protect hearing aids and cochlear implants from dust and moisture. These can also be ordered with cords that can be clipped to one’s shirt—something perfect for an active child or a teen who likes sports.
- Hearing Aid Headbands (hearingaidheadbands.co.uk) are another functional and cute option. These are custom-designed headbands that are designed to hold hearing aids or cochlear implant processors securely on one’s head.
- The Hear Clip (thehearclip.com) is decorative jewelry that can be attached to hearing aids, cochlear implants, or auditory osseointegrated implant systems (e.g., BAHA™ devices). There are ear cuff and earring options. Another jewelry option is Hearrings (www.hearrings.co.uk) which are Swarovski crystal accessories that slide over earmold tubing.
- Hearing aid and cochlear implant manufacturers also may have stickers that are available, which can be adhered onto the devices—and which can easily be changed for a different design, color, or pattern. Parents can speak with their audiologist or the hearing aid manufacturer to see if the manufacturer has different stickers available especially for their children’s hearing aids.
- In addition, SkinIts, which are adhesive designs that can be stuck onto hearing aids or cochlear implants are available. Some that are available include:
- Phonak SkinIts (also includes FM receivers and transmitter options: http://phonak.skinit.com/
- MED-EL SkinIts: https://phonak.skinit.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=med-el
- Cochlear SkinIts: https://phonak.skinit.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=cochlear
- Advanced Bionics SkinIts: http://www.skinit.com/device-skins/medical-skins/advanced-bionics
- Another idea for decorating hearing aids can also include using pony beads or larger beads on earmold tubing. Others have used decorative washi tape or nail stickers on the side of the hearing aids. Stick-on rhinestones can also add a little glitz for fancy occasions! A few things to keep in mind if using washi tape or nail stickers: Take care not to cover microphones, buttons, or switches. Do not use nail stickers that use water or acetone for removal of the stickers. Do not use nail polish, paint, or glue on hearing aids or cochlear implants.
- There are several Facebook groups that focus on decorating hearing aids and cochlear implants:
In this case, fashion is not frivolous. As Mimi Shulman (jewelry designer with hearing loss, and designer of Ear Wear) said in a documentary for the (dis)ABLED BEAUTY exhibition (www.facebook.com/disabledbeauty), she designed Ear Wear (hearing aid jewelry) so that others would “see that we’re human, we have a sense of humor…they [hearing aids] can be fashion statements to us. It’s to take the stigma away.”
Blood, I. M. (1997). The hearing aid effect: Challenges for counseling. Journal of Rehabilitation, 63(4), 59-62.
Cienkowski, K. M., & Pimentel, V. (2001). The hearing aid ‘effect’revisited in young adults. British journal of audiology, 35(5), 289-295.
Corrigan, P. W., Kosyluk, K. A., & Rüsch, N. (2013). Reducing self-stigma by coming out proud. American journal of public health, 103(5), 794-800.
Harter, S. (2000). Is self-esteem only skin-deep? The inextricable link between physical appearance and self-esteem. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9(3), 133.
Kent, B., & Smith, S. (2006). They only see it when the sun shines in my ears: Exploring perceptions of adolescent hearing aid users. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11(4), 461-476.
Kidd, L. K. (2006). A case study: Creating special occasion garments for young women with special needs. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 24(2), 161-172.
Singh, G., Lau, S. T., & Pichora-Fuller, M. K. (2015). Social support predicts hearing aid satisfaction. Ear and hearing, 36(6), 664-676.
Sjoblad, S., Harrison, M., Roush, J., & McWilliam, R. A. (2001). Parents’ reactions and recommendations after diagnosis and hearing aid fitting. American Journal of Audiology, 10(1), 24-31.
van Gurp, S. (2001). Self-concept of deaf secondary school students in different educational settings. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6(1), 54-69.