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My Hearing Loss Shouldn't Be the Punchline of Your Joke

“Do you mind if I switch seats with you?” I asked a well-dressed man at a recent lunch meeting. “I have hearing loss and it would help if I had a better view of the speaker.”

“What?” he replied with a smirk, not because he didn’t hear me, but because he was making a joke. Seeing my grim smile in return, he continued, “I guess you have probably heard that one before.” That is an understatement.

If I had asked him to switch seats because I had trouble seeing or because I was recovering from surgery and needed extra space for my bandaged foot, I don’t think I would have gotten a joke as a reply. In this modern world, where making fun of people based on race or religion or mental stability is rarely tolerated – and rightly so – why is it still OK to make fun of hearing loss?

I believe it has to do with the stigma surrounding hearing loss. You can read more about that here. People with hearing loss are often seen as “old” or “slow” or “rude” or “out of touch” and “not worth the time.” People sometimes complain to me how frustrating it is that their aging mother or father can’t hear them or that they have grown weary of constantly repeating themselves, and I can understand how they must feel. Hearing loss is hard on the entire family. But I don’t like when people tell me they wish their loved one would try harder to hear. Can a blind person try harder to see?

Maybe I am being too sensitive.

As Tracy Morgan once said:

“We need to learn to laugh at ourselves because when you don’t laugh, you cry. And I don’t feel like crying.”

I agree, but the fact remains – hearing loss is one of the disabilities for which insensitivity still seems to be socially acceptable.

Is this because hearing loss is often associated with getting older? Statistics tell us this is not actually true. According to the Better Hearing Institute, 65 percent of people with hearing loss are below age 65. Also, 20 percent of teenagers now experience some form of hearing loss. But the association remains. You can find more hearing loss facts here.

So what can we do to break the stigma of hearing loss?

1. Keep talking about it. While much has been written lately about the fading stigma of hearing loss, now that wearing Bluetooth-type devices on the ear is commonplace, I’m not sure I’m convinced. If hearing loss is still the punchline of a joke, the stigma remains.

2. Refute the stigma by leading our vibrant and engaging lives with our hearing loss and hearing devices proudly on display. Encourage others to do the same.

3. Educate the public on the challenges of hearing loss and advocate for changing public policy, instituting accommodations for people with hearing loss in public spaces and including hearing devices in insurance coverage.

4. Advocate for ourselves by demanding the accommodations we need and commending those businesses that provide them.

5. Vote with our patronage. There are 50 million people in the United States with hearing loss – this is a lot of potential consumer spending. Frequent businesses and service providers that are hearing loss-friendly and avoid those that are not. Be sure to tell these businesses why you do or do not use their services.

Readers, do people make jokes to you about your hearing loss?

A version of this post first appeared on Living With Hearing Loss.

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