OPINION: Hearing Aids Are Assistive Devices, Not Miracle Workers
At 30 years old, I recently got my first pair of hearing aids.
I was only 11 years old when my mother took me to an audiologist about my hearing. My friend’s mom had noticed that I often wouldn’t turn around when she was calling my name, so she told my mother, who is also deaf, that I should get checked out.
The audiologist confirmed a decent amount of hearing loss. I don’t know exactly how much, as I was too young to pay attention or care at the time, but it was enough to consider the option of hearing aids, but they were just too expensive for us to afford.
The average cost of hearing aids can be anywhere from $1,000 to more than $6,000 depending on where you live, what you’re getting and, in rare instances, what insurance will pay.
I spent the rest of my school years without hearing aids or other accommodations, dealing with increasing struggle as those years went on and graduated with only a 2.6 GPA.
Alongside no access to hearing aids, I also did not have access to American Sign Language (ASL). Every time it was brought up, the option was brushed aside and nobody around me learned it either. Despite North Carolina School for the Deaf being about a half an hour away from me, I continued to enroll in mainstream schools until I graduated high school.
I never did go to college, either, due to the lack of accessibility.
So I was forced to get by with the hearing I had left while attempting to lipread, which I’m terrible at. As the hearing loss became more aggressive, things became more and more difficult.
When I finally started learning about and integrating into the deaf community in my early 20s, I started to feel a little more comfortable learning ASL. I no longer felt like it was useless to me since I finally found people like me. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually live near these communities, at least not near deaf people my age. They were either small children going to the deaf school, or older people that I would have little to no connection to other than being deaf.
After high school, I struggled to get a job. I applied anywhere that didn’t require too much experience, but because of my deafness, I was not hired.
Yes, that is illegal but difficult to enforce. Employers can simply say they didn’t find you to be the right candidate for the job and don’t need to get more specific than that. That’s how they work around the American Disabilities Act.
Shortly after I graduated high school, I began frequenting YouTube, a place that anyone can be a part of. You are in charge of what goes on your own channel and how the content is made. I started my first few years on YouTube as a makeup guru, reviewing makeup products and doing tutorials in hopes of one day becoming a professional makeup artist.
Eventually, I grew bored of doing makeup for YouTube, and it was costing me more money than it was worth, so I changed niches and started talking about being deaf and accessibility. Talking about accessibility on YouTube is what kicked off my public speaking career. I started hosting workshops at conventions like VidCon and Playlist, and even got to be on stage for Google and Apple.
While the actual events themselves — be it a panel or a workshop — come with a captioner and an ASL interpreter — the networking, the after-parties, etc., did not. Each entire event, minus the one or two hours when I was onstage, was me on my own, the only deaf person in a crowd of hearing, non-signing people. This made it a struggle to hang out with peers and potential clients one-on-one, and especially in groups where there’s multiple people talking at once.
The issues don’t stop with people and events though. It has become more difficult to edit my own videos. I speak in the majority of my videos and don’t script them, so I have to use the hearing I have left and settings in my headphones and editing program to try to understand myself and know what to cut out and leave in. YouTube is a large part of my career, so to be unable to have some sort of solution could mean risking that.
With all of those things heavy on my mind early in 2021, I strongly considered looking into hearing aids. Yet there was still that ultimate barrier: the cost.
I didn’t get health insurance until a few months into the year, but even then, trying to afford hearing aids on top of the cost of appointments was out of the question. I make around $1,000-$1,500 a month before taxes and have a car to pay for.
Getting hearing aids seemed impossible and my frustrations grew higher. So I did what any YouTuber would naturally do when frustrated about something: I tweeted about it.
An acquaintance saw the tweet and gave me an answer I’ve gotten numerous times before but never took seriously in fear of it not working out: VR.
VR, or VRS, stands for Vocational Rehabilitation Services, which helps disabled people by providing jobs, accessibility tools, and laptops, tablets, or any such equipment they need for work. I’d heard about VR before and considered contacting them, but every time I thought about it, I chickened out.
Finally in April, I bit the bullet and sent a message. Shortly after, I received a response that eventually allowed me to start the process of acquiring hearing aids. A lot of paperwork and background checks, a new hearing test and audiogram (which confirmed progressive moderate-to-severe and severe-to-profound hearing loss depending on the ear and the frequency levels), and earmold application later,
I officially received my first pair of hearing aids in August: a pair of Phonak Naida Paradise buds with black hardware and pink earmolds.
Using them has been quite the journey, to say the least.
I had no volume control for the first two weeks, as my audiologist wanted me to get used to sound in general. Things were incredibly loud. Even the sounds of lightly brushing a paper bag and putting a memory card down onto the table hurt my ears. The beeping and buzzing noises of the refrigerator and washing machine made me think they were broken or that I was in a real-life Conjuring movie.
Every single time I walked past people who were talking, I would turn my head, as it seemed they were talking directly to me. Everything sounded a bit computerized, which I found in my research to be normal, as it takes the brain a few months to train itself to all the new sounds. Even as that subsides somewhat, in the end, I will never register sound the same way as hearing people do.
The hearing aids needed to be readjusted and volume control needed to be turned on, but I had to wait.
On the upside, conversation with hearing people became a lot easier. Granted, only really with unmasked people, and only as long as we were still facing each other. And it often felt as if I was being screamed at instead of being talked to at a normal volume, but still, progress was being made.
The best upside of all was hearing both of my cats meow and realizing that their voices really should be switched. My meaner cat sounds like the sweetest, most dainty cat in the world while my sweeter and extremely cuddly one actually sounds threatening, like he’s yelling at me all the time.
Two weeks after getting my hearing aids, they were finally readjusted and things began to sound a bit more normal — according to my understanding of normal, anyway. Spoken language and music continue to sound a bit robotic, but I don’t imagine that lessening soon as it is just computerized hearing, not natural hearing.
I feel the relaxing of my throat, as I no longer have to strain it to project so much in my YouTube videos just to make sure I can hear myself later in post. I haven’t been able to try editing with them in yet as my headphones cover too closely to the speaker, which makes things staticky and painful.
I recently gave a TEDx Talk and was able to understand a few brief things the staff told me when my interpreter wasn’t around for a moment. (Bathroom breaks and the like. She’s not slacking off, I swear!)
Overall, finally getting my hands on hearing aids has been a beneficial experience. Getting them through VR has helped tremendously and I don’t know where I would be now if I hadn’t received their help.
With that all being said, it’s important to know that hearing aids are not miracle workers; they’re not cures. So if you see someone with hearing aids, please do not assume they can hear you, as hearing aids work differently for everyone’s levels of deafness.
Hearing aids are simply assistive devices to help with noticing noise and increasing accessibility. A larger effort for equal communication from hearing people is still required. Hearing aids don’t “fix” my deafness, as deafness isn’t something that needs to be fixed in order to thrive.
Rikki Poynter is a columnist covering disability issues for Queen City Nerve. Read her past work here.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.