What do you mean?

Posted by jennifer gibson on Monday, January 9, 2017 Under: January 2017

To borrow the phrase from Justin Bieber's popular song "What do you mean?", I wanted to know the true meaning of the word "stigma". I reached for the heavy Dictionary and Thesaurus, flipped through the thick pages and found the description: a mark of disgrace or infamy associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. To go even further, according to the medical description it states: a mental or physical mark that is characteristic of a defect or disease.

So what does that mean as we head in to the New Year? Well, one of my own goals for this year was to learn to love myself and embrace my uniqueness whether I liked it or not. I knew that it wasn't going to be an easy task. What I did not expect was to be so dismayed at the lack of progress over the stigma of using hearing aids. Personally, it doesn't bother me to wear hearing aids, I learned to accept that reality a long time ago. The problem was coming from other people who suddenly lost their hearing or are at the point in their lives that they need to consider getting their hearing checked.

I find their resistance to getting hearing aids perplexing. They view it as a disgrace, a sign of getting older. Even if the cost was not a problem (they are ridiculously expensive), they still find a reason to not wear them. I've heard (ironically) a lot of excuses that range from "I don't need hearing aids, I'm not that old," or "I don't have time to see the audiologist," and "I don't like how they fit," to "They look ugly!". I do agree with the last part though.

Growing up with a severe hearing loss, I spent many years dealing with all sorts of attitudes and the negativity associated with it. By the time I was in high school, I became a public speaker to help change the perceptions of being hearing impaired. I worked hard to show my audience the importance of being included in the society and living life to the best of my abilities. My goal at that point was to create a ripple effect for the future. I knew that it would take years or even decades for the society to finally embrace disabilities like hearing loss.

Don't get me wrong, there is definitely a greater sense of awareness, openness and education about people living with a disability. However, I was hoping that by now, in the year 2017, that there would be a lot less fear of being judged. As a child growing up in the 1970's, hearing loss was perceived as a sign that there was something wrong with me. At the time, most people were not aware that we could wear hearing aids. It was such a foreign concept that they didn't know what to do with us. Technology was still evolving, slowly leaping forwards towards a digital solution. Effective teaching tools and classroom strategies for mainstreamed students was still being developed.
Everyday was a enormous challenge for someone like me.

I learned very quickly how much of a gap there was in terms of how the general public viewed us. I felt like I had my own personal spotlight that followed me everywhere, telling everyone that I was "different". What surprised me most was the lack of comprehension by the adults around me. I was often viewed as being dumb, as someone not being able to follow instructions or participate like everyone else. This kind of mindset was a common theme throughout my childhood where I was frequently misunderstood or underestimated.

By the time I reached high school, I had grown very tired of being ignored and placed on the sidelines. I knew that something had to be done about it. I became a public speaker, helping hundreds of students, teachers, school counselors and hearing aid companies learn more about living with a profound hearing loss. They gained a unique insight into my world and it gave them a greater sense of awareness as well as compassion.

As I traveled from coast to coast, reaching out to the audience, my hope was to change the perception of disabilities. I wanted to be seen as a person, not a broken object to discarded by the society. I needed to show them that I was a person, not a statistic.  I was tired of being viewed as being handicapped.
My overall goal was to end the stigma of wearing hearing aids.

Now, as someone in their forties, that classification has grown incredibly tiresome. To me, wearing hearing aids was a part of my life, simply an extension of my ears. I had thought that by now, after many years of so being so vocal about hearing loss that more people would be more open to it. Imagine my surprise when I discover that there are still a lot people that are afraid to get their hearing checked. Instead of stepping forward and embracing this change in their lives, they feel ashamed and fearful of viewed as being handicapped or elderly.

This makes me wonder about what changes we need to make to help keep them moving forward in life. What can we do, as a society, to create a wider sense of appreciation for utilizing digital technology. Someday, I would love to see the definition of the word "stigma" as not being perceived as something that fills us with dread, pain or shame.

In : January 2017 

Tags: "hearing aids" "hearing loss"  stigma  "public speaker" 
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