By David H. Kirkwood

Editor’s Note:  It’s never too late to say thank you, as this post, first published August 16, 2011, makes clear.  Although mainstream media is giving a lot more attention to hearing aids these days, specifically their cost, the bedrock issues of prevention and management still get little press.

 

This week’s Hearing View is a letter of thanks and congratulations that I sent to Matt Lauer, host of NBC Television’s Today Show. Having spent about half my career as a  journalist writing about hearing, I’ve been extremely frustrated by how little attention the mainstream media give to hearing loss and how to prevent it, cope with it, and treat it.

That’s why I wanted to let Matt Lauer and NBC know what a valuable service they provided with their segment on hearing loss on the August 10 Today Show. If you didn’t see it live, I suggest that you view it by clicking here.  

I think you’ll agree that the broadcast did an excellent job of explaining how common and serious a problem hearing loss is. Lauer, who had his own hearing tested on the show, also effectively debunked some common myths about hearing loss—that it’s mostly something old people get, that hearing aids are something to be embarrassed about, that nothing can be done about it, etc.

The program wasn’t perfect. It focused too much on how invisible modern hearing aids are, and neglected to mention that patients with more severe losses may need less discreet instruments. However, for the most part, the program presented clear, straightforward information to viewers on why and how to have their hearing tested, how to prevent hearing loss, and, if they already have hearing loss, how to treat it.

 

Dear Mr. Lauer,

I’d like to congratulate you and NBC-TV for the outstanding segment on hearing loss that ran on the August 10 Today Show. In writing to you, I suspect I am also speaking for millions of other Americans who suffer from this often-neglected condition.

Your program gave all-too-rare public recognition of how common and how serious a problem hearing loss is. In doing this and in showing how effectively today’s advanced hearing aids can treat most cases of hearing loss, you provided an important service to your viewers.

Over the 20 years that I’ve been covering hearing health care, I’ve been shocked by how little attention the mainstream media pay to hearing loss. After all, it’s a condition that afflicts more than 30 million Americans of all ages. And, while people often make jokes about their old Aunt Molly being “as deaf as a post,” as you so clearly pointed out, hearing loss is no laughing matter. When it goes untreated–as it usually does–hearing loss detracts enormously from a person’s quality of life. It also takes a heavy toll on those closest to the person, since they may no longer be able to communicate easily and effectively with their spouse, parent, sibling, or close friend.

The Today Show effectively touched on the most common reasons that people fail to get the help they need for hearing loss. These include denial that they have it and the stigma associated with hearing loss and hearing aids. Jim McDade, the  39-year-old man you interviewed on the show, put it very well when he explained why he had been unwilling to get hearing aids, even though his condition was causing him to disengage from any social situation. He told you, “Someone with eyeglasses looks intelligent. Someone with hearing aids looks handicapped.”

But now that he wears them, McDade advises hearing-impaired viewers to do the same. And he tell them that if they don’t wear hearing aids, “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

You also dispelled the myth that hearing loss is essentially a condition of the elderly. As you reported, most people with impaired hearing are under age 65.

I commend you also for having Dr. Shelley Borgia test your hearing for the show. It demonstrated that a hearing test is no big deal. What’s more, it sent a powerful message to viewers. If a youthful 53-year-old television star is willing to have his hearing loss (albeit a mild one) revealed on national TV, shouldn’t they be willing to admit and address their own hearing loss?

In closing, thank you for a great program, and keep up the good work.  

Yours sincerely,

David H. Kirkwood

HearingHealthMatters.org

By David H. Kirkwood

Editor’s Note:  This post, first published June 8, 2011, retains its relevance today with little in the way of updating.”Switched at Birth”remains on the air for another season, too.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there were a lot of invisible Americans. They weren’t literally invisible like the title character in the H.G. Wells science fiction novel, The Invisible Man. They were more like the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s similarly titled classic Invisible Man. They could be seen, but they rarely were, at least not in the mass communications medium that told us–and still does to a degree—what life in America is like. That medium is television, specifically the prime-time programming that regularly outdraws every other type of popular entertainment.

More than fifty years ago, when NBC, CBS, and ABC ruled the air waves, viewers all chose from the same very limited selection of shows. There were various popular genres: westerns; police, lawyer, and doctor shows; and, until they were exposed as being fixed, quiz shows.  While differing in many ways, these programs had one thing in common: virtually everyone who appeared on them was white. Also, almost no one was poor, What’s more, all the people in the ads interspersed among the programs were also white and seemed well able to afford the cars and cigarettes and drug store items they were being told to buy.

For the early baby boomers, it was the family shows of the 1950s, like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet, that did the most to shape our picture of how life was lived in our own country. While none of our lives were exactly like those of the Cleavers, Andersons, or Nelsons, a lot of us did grow up in very homogeneous, middle-class neighborhoods where Dad worked, Mom stayed home, and everyone went to church on Sunday. Back then, a lot of things weren’t talked about much, so it was easy for many kids to be unaware of poverty, divorce, alcoholism, depression, and other unpleasant issues that never made it onto what we saw on the small screen.

It was not until our generation grew a little more worldly that some of us finally realized how much of the real world was omitted from TV Land’s portrayals of impossibly conventional and untroubled American families of northern European ancestry.

On the other hand, there were undoubtedly a lot of Americans who figured that out as soon as they were old enough to watch these shows.  If you were an African-American child growing up in a black or racially mixed neighborhood, it must have been painfully apparent that none of the main characters on TV series looked like you or your family. It wasn’t until 1965, when I Spy debuted, that an African-American actor (Bill Cosby) had a featured role.

Hispanic and Asian-Americans were also conspicuously absent. Thanks to Westerns, Native Americans were much more visible, though not necessarily in a good way. Tonto was not a great role model.

 

AND THEN IT ALL CHANGED

 

Clearly, I’m talking ancient history here. Unless they watch Nick at Night a lot, readers under 50 might find it hard to believe the type of shows that once dominated television.

Fortunately, the producers and sponsors of television shows eventually discovered that they were turning off a lot of prospective viewers and consumers by the narrow range of characters and actors that appeared.

By the 1970s and 1980s, people of every race, religion, ethnic background, and social stratum were portrayed on popular television shows. It took longer, but in recent years, gays and lesbians, whose “invisibility” was not limited to television, became common characters.

Changing social attitudes, especially among younger people, are one major factor in the diversification of American TV. Another is the advent of cable, which allows most people to receive hundreds of channels, which need to have programming available 24/7.

While I don’t think too many people would want a return to the extraordinarily narrow vision of TV in the 1950s, the explosion of choices and the rejection of nearly all the old taboos that have occurred since then is not an unmixed blessing. I’m not at all sure that the world is a better place because of Jersey Shore, the Jerry Springer Show, and the Real Housewives of Orange County. These and other “reality shows” are no more real and much more offensive than anything I ever heard from Ward and June Cleaver.

 

SOME ARE STILL INVISIBLE

 

If you’re wondering why this is appearing in the Hearing Views section of our blog, I’m getting to that. While there is very little that we don’t see on television these days, one group of Americans does remain largely out of sight. I’m talking about people with disabilities, whom Daniel Allott labeled “Hollywood’s Invisible Minority” in a June 3 column in The American Spectator.

Allott cited a report that characters with disabilities comprise just 1% of primetime network TV roles. According to the Census Bureau, about 20% of non-institutionalized Americans have a disability.

Before anyone thinks that Allott or I am advocating a quota of disabled roles, we’re not. His point, which I think is a good one, is that when characters with a disability do appear, they tend to be one-dimensional and defined by their disability.

 

A NEW SHOW TO CHECK OUT

 

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I watched the premiere of Switched at Birth. The series, which appears, on ABC Family Mondays at 9, has as its unlikely premise that two newborns were accidentally sent home with the wrong parents. The mistake wasn’t discovered until one of the girls, Bay, learns from a blood test in her high school chemistry class that she can’t be related to the wealthy couple who raised her. That leads to the discovery that the couple’s biological daughter, Daphne, was accidentally given to and raised by the single mother, of limited means, who had given birth to Bay. As if growing up in the wrong home wasn’t enough, Daphne is also deaf, a result of contracting meningitis at an early age.

While the basic plot line may strain credulity, one thing that I liked about the show is that deafness is only one of Daphne’s many facets. She is smart, athletic, and good at making friends, both with her classmates at the school for the deaf she attends and among people with normal hearing. She lipreads and speaks clearly as well as signing.

The initial episode did a good job of raising some of the contentious issues that surround deafness (deaf school vs. mainstream, signing vs. lipreading, whether or not to get a cochlear implant), and did so without being too heavy-handed. Also interesting is how Daphne is shown socializing both with hearing people and with her deaf classmates.

Katie Leclerc, who stars as Daphne, has a hearing loss caused by Meniere’s disease, but is not deaf. But all the other deaf characters are played by deaf actors, including Marlee Matlin, who portrays a guidance counselor.

 

ON THE OTHER HAND

 

Deafness has considerable dramatic potential, as illustrated by Switched at Birth and Children of a Lesser God, which was successful as both a play and movie. However, people with moderate to severe hearing loss, while far more numerous than deaf people, are even less likely to be central characters in a TV program or film.

When a hard-of-hearing person is portrayed, it’s all too likely to be for a few cheap laughs. (As a fan of Fawlty Towers, I must confess to finding the episode with Mrs. Richards, a very unpleasant, hard-of-hearing guest at the hotel, hilarious.)

Actually, there are many disabilities that cause people a lot of distress, but may not make for must-see TV. Serious asthma, crippling rheumatic arthritis, or 80-dB thresholds in the speech frequencies come to mind. So, while some screenwriter or novelist may someday come up with a compelling work about a character with this type of disability, for better or worse I expect the disabled to remain largely off-screen.

 

*featured image courtesy Britannica