By Arielle Schacter
“Wait a minute…lemme get this straight—you have a hearing loss,” a middle-aged woman demanded of me last week, “How come you don’t look like you do?” Startled, I was immediately taken aback. How could I possibly answer this question? After all, what does a person who is deaf or hard of hearing even look like?
Did she believe that I was supposed to be blonde, not brunette, in order to highlight my dark hearing aids? Are my ears supposed to protrude so far out that everyone can easily see my tiny aids? Should I be signing, not speaking? Or is my speech supposed to be so strongly accented that it’s obvious I have some form of hearing loss?
Although her question was both ignorant and rude, it represents one of many common misconceptions about hearing loss. There are so many false ideas floating around about what a person who is deaf or has a hearing loss is like or can do. Apparently, the condition includes being old, uneducated, and unable to speak. The picture seems to be of a person severely limited by their disability. So, I want to address a few of the most common and bizarre stereotypes that I have encountered:
Being Deaf or Hard of Hearing Means Being Old
When my grandfather first developed a hearing loss, he refused to wear hearing aids. Despite having (at the time) a very young granddaughter with a hearing loss, he believed that losing his hearing automatically meant that he was growing older. Sure, like the rest of the world, he was getting older, but his hearing loss did not inherently connote old age. In fact, his association of hearing aids with old people seemed both to deny that I had a hearing loss and to make me years older than I was.
The best estimates are that somewhere in the range of 22 to 36 million people in the United States are deaf or hard of hearing. Among Americans under the age of 18, 12 of every 1000 have a hearing loss. In short, there are plenty of t(w)eens who are deaf or hard of hearing, and the number is rising.
Having a Hearing Loss Rules Out Participating in Sports
People have constantly told me I can’t do certain sports, e.g., swimming and skiing, because of my hearing loss. I’m not saying that Phys Ed is my favorite class, but I still love running around. And there’s no way I’m going to let my disability get in the way of that!
People are shocked when I tell them I can swim. They can’t understand how I learned to do so if I couldn’t wear my hearing aids in the water. As for skiing, instructors used to think I was a danger on the mountains simply because I was hard of hearing. When I was 11, I was assigned to a group for 6-year-olds who were learning how to ski for the first time–just because I wore hearing aids. Did I mention that I am now a black diamond skier and I have hearing aids? I can go on: gym teachers, coaches… But, the point is, sports are an option even if you have a hearing loss.
To the Deaf/HoH, Foreign Languages Are Meant to Stay Foreign
Ever since I first visited France at the age of four, I knew that I had to learn French someday. But in fifth grade when my classmates got to choose between learning to parler français or habla español, I was told that I could not take French. School officials were acting on the advice of an IT who told them that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can’t speak French—it’s too difficult. My response was, “What do kids who are deaf or hard of hearing in France do? Don’t they speak French?” So now, nearly seven years later, I am in Advanced Topics in French Literature. If you want to learn something, you should. Your hearing loss should not be a barrier, rather just an obstacle to overcome.
There are many other misconceptions and stereotypes associated with hearing loss. Everyday, someone ignorantly says something about hearing los; they make unfair judgments based on unfounded ideas. They ask questions like, “Why don’t you look like you have a hearing loss?”
So, after taking a moment to think about how to respond to that woman, I said, “Because I look like me.” And that’s why. My hearing loss is not who I am; it’s just part of me.
I am not my hearing loss. Neither are you.
Arielle Schacter has reached millions of people with her writing. She had a popular blog for teenagers with hearing loss, and has written for the Huffington Post. She has also been an active supporter of the Hearing Access Program, which aims to make the world more accessible for people with hearing loss. Glamour magazine selected her as one of “21 Amazing Young Women of 2011.” She also received a 2011 Oticon Focus on People Award.
*Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at Hearing Views on November 30, 2011. Last updated August 1st 2016.