Dirty Laundry: Removing Hearing Aids in Public

Is it poor taste to take your hearing aids out in public to change the battery or scratch your ear?

Who decides whether an activity is ‘acceptable’, anyway?  Society? The Law? Individual people? Some women would love to run bare-chested, as men do, through the park on Sunday mornings. It would draw stares, frowns and comments. Possibly a ticket for indecent exposure. Also, sunburn on skin that has seldom breathed the fresh outdoors.

And there was a time when our mothers thought nothing of going to the grocery story with curlers in their hair!  Even as a young girl, this just seemed wrong to me, and today, public curlers are the height of tacky. We’re still working through the public breastfeeding issue, but wearing blue jeans to the theater is now standard and tattoos have moved way down on the List of Shocking Things.

But how acceptable is public hearing aid battery changing? There’s no law against it. Hearing aids are commonplace and pose no public health risk unless, of course, swallowed. The only off-putting aspect is the sight of ear molds that have collected a small but noticeable mass of cerumen (the charming medical term for earwax). The sight of someone else’s cerumen on a weird-looking ear mold might make people recoil with an inner “pee-yew!”

But, even when I’m around other people with hearing loss, I seldom see a public battery change. Perhaps it belongs on the list of procedures that are carried out privately or as discretely as possible—such as picking your nose or scratching yourself. Most of us even prefer that nose-blowing be done out of our line of sight. Perhaps scratching the inner ear falls in the same category. It’s mesmerizing to see how some people go at it, their fingers moving like jackhammers.  (And since we’re talking about gross things—must they look at their finger afterwards? Could we at least be spared that?)

ear scratchMost hearing aid users get itchy ears occasionally and use a swift-but-subtle removal of the hearing aid followed by a satisfying scratch (disguised as a head scratch which, for some reason, is more acceptable). The real problem lies in that nano-second before the owner can turn off the hearing aid by opening the battery cage—when we hear the high screeching of the hearing aid, like a prisoner escaping from its cell. I can turn off my behind-the-ear hearing aids before removing them, but in most in-the-ear models, the battery cage can’t easily be opened until the aids are out of  the ears, and that doesn’t happen fast enough avoid the hearing aid’s brief cry of freedom: BOO-YAH, out at last!”

After scratching the itch—with hearing aid hidden in your lap or purse—the procedure is reversed, quickly pushing in the battery cage and popping in the aid to forestall another freedom cry. The longer you wear hearing aids, the better and faster you get at this operation.

Now, if your battery goes dead, there’s no screeching—but there’s the social dilemma of changing the battery in public. The process looks simple, but requires some finesse. Hearing aids are precision-designed wonders of technology (that’s why they cost so much) and you can’t simply jam the battery in any old way. If you’re nervous or not focused, the battery might slip through your fingers onto the floor, perhaps under the movie theater seat in front of you. Don’t bother trying to find a small metal disc in the dark; just pull out another battery.batteries

I’ve given up trying to hide the battery-changing process when my batteries inconveniently sputter out in public.  If I were super-organized, I would guesstimate when a battery’s time is up and change it before leaving the house. But as one who generally flings herself from one moment to the next, I’ve learned to change batteries under very trying conditions: while driving a car (although doing it one-handed is neither recommended nor safe) and in the dark of the movie theater.  Last week, I changed them on the airplane—where the squealing probably didn’t turn too many heads over the airline noise.  In a restaurant, though, I do try to spare people the sight of my cerumen-tipped hearing aids. Why sabotage someone’s appetite by having them look at someone else’s brown guck?

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

24 Comments

  1. I make no bones about it. If the battery has to be changed I’m gonna change it…anywhere, regardless of company. I’d change mine sitting across the table with the king and queen of England. Also if my ear itches I just pop the aids out and anyone watching would think I was trying to take flight. Lol

    1. Thanks Steve, for your answer on http://www.hearingaidknow.com/hearing-aid-change-battery-public. We all have our customs and practices that we are comfortable with, don’t give a second thought to – but that others might find to be ‘too much information’. It’s one of the many little corners of the hearing loss life. Personally, I’m very comfortable with it, but posed the question to see what others think.

  2. In all my years of wearing hearing aids and having to change batteries I could not tell you if anyone was looking at me with distaste when I did this, nor could I tell you if anyone was just looking at me. My concern was to get my sound back I don’t believe this is an issue. I think people are creating issues of things that are not issues and publicising them to see what people say not just this particular subject but many of them. No offense intended but just my thoughts and the thoughts of others that I know

    1. Thanks for writing and no offense taken. Hearing loss was a taboo topic for so long, and while most ‘younger’ or lifelong hearing aid users may have have no stigma issues, many others do. It helps them to read about topics that may induce eye-rolling in others.

  3. Of course I change my hearing aid batteries in public. It never occurred to me not to. It would be like being embarrassed to be breathing.

  4. Thank you for writing about this topic!!!!! I have no problems at all anymore to change my batteries in public. And yes, dependent on the place I do it, people are looking at me changing a battery. But if I have to choose between a dead hearing aid or changing a battery in public, I defo choose the latter. Let them look!

  5. I lost a line in my post…
    Another interesting phenomenon, I now have a hearing dog, and it’s amazing that some folks can’t make the connection between ”hearing dog” and “owner can’t hear.”

  6. My way of dealing with battery changes is to say “The number you have
    reached is temporarily disconnected. Please wait while I replace my
    hearing aid battery.” That inevitably brings a smile and, sometimes.
    questions.

  7. I’m very matter-of-fact when dealing with my hearing aids and loss of hearing. If I need to change a battery, I change it. If it screeches, it screeches. I’ve been wearing aids since my early 30’s and treat it as a badge of honor.

  8. As with many semi personal tasks, it is a matter of degree, and location. If one can remove or insert one’s devices with only a brief moment of feedback, it should not be frowned upon. It falls under the same level of intrusion as a slight cough or sneeze – it is not meant to be offensive and is not a prolonged matter. If one has not mastered the technique, or dexterity is an issue and the feedback would be experienced for more than a moment, then yes, it would be proper etiquette to excuse oneself and find a location that would be less noticeable. Timing is also an issue: knowing that one’s devices will produce feedback, it is just good manners not to remove them in the midst of a sermon, for instance. As someone whose ears produce more cerumen than most, I usually excuse myself to prevent anyone else from facing a moment where they must see buildup on my devices. In an emergency, I at least try to not be in someone’s direct view. The “tipping point” is more a matter of knowing if the action is going to be off putting to others, it is better to find a neutral place.

  9. I’m pretty good at taking mine out (It’s a BTE). I palm it and lower it beneath the table. Changing the battery is a pain, but it must be done. If I need to Q-Tip my ear, Ill excuse myself and use the rest room

  10. I will always change the battery when it needs to be changed. There is no embarrassment there, as there shouldn’t be. Would you be embarrassed to pick up the lense that had fallen out of your glasses and put it back? This is a basic accommodation we need in order to navigate the hearing world.

  11. I find that when I remove my hearing aids for any reason, it’s often a conversation starter. People are so curious–for themselves, a family member, a friend. I’ve never been embarrassed about it. Now as far as the itch, I just don’t know about that one. I usually just delay a bit

    1. This is my experience too, particularly with anyone who I haven’t had a conversation about my hearing with yet. Typical questions include how long do the batteries last, how much they cost, surely they are covered by medical (nope) or insurance (nope)…

  12. It’s something that needs to be done, and whether it’s “socially acceptable” or not, I’m going to do it. I don’t make a big deal of it and try to be discreet, but so what if there’s a brief screech? People’s phones go off all the time in public, people play their music from their phones and don’t think twice about who that might disturb. If I get a look from someone, I look back with a “what?” sort of raised eyebrows expression. It’s really nobody’s business and I don’t owe anyone an explanation. Itchy ears need to be itched, so I do that too, but I’m subtle about it. It’s pretty easy to hide and make it look like I’m fiddling with an earring.

    1. Totally agree. If you’re a regular reader of my blogs, you’ll know that my tongue is often firmly planted in my cheek, to get discussions going….

    1. Of course not, lol. Nor is it rude when one removes hearing aids…this article was about the stigma, and how attitudes change through time.

  13. I’m in my mid-30s and people are often surprised to learn that I wear hearing aids in both ears. Last week just before my daughter’s softball game was about to start I got them message that my left HA battery needed to be replaced. I have no qualms about changing my batteries in public. I do it discretely and don’t call a lot of attention to it. I just get it done quickly and go on about my business. But one of the other moms happened to walk up beside me and kneel down to speak to me… on my left side! I was lost. There was no way I was going to hear her in the noisy environment of the ball field and I don’t read her lips well. I had to point out that I needed her to wait just a minute while I finished changing the battery. She was patient but a lot of times I don’t know if people don’t believe me when I say “hold on one second. I can’t hear you” or if they don’t understand that I truly can’t understand them without the aid. I’m sure my age plays a part in their disbelief but it’s always interesting.

    1. I agree it’s an age thing. I started wearing HAs 30 years ago, so now I’m in the, “well, you’re just old” category, but people have always been surprised or not understand the concept of ” give me a moment” to get my ears working.
      Another interesting phenomenon, I now have a hearing dog, an” owner can’t hear.”
      Re public battery changing, discreet is good, but getting hearing back trumps being deaf.

      Love your columns, Gael.

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