Have you ever had to ask someone to repeat herself? Again? What? Over and over? Did it make you feel smart? Chances are, no. Communication through speech is such a big part of our daily lives that we often don’t think about how isolating it would be to struggle with hearing in ways that other teens don’t. The truth is that 15% of kids have hearing loss in at least one ear. There is growing awareness that loud music — especially experienced through ear buds or headphones — and environmental noise, like subways, are the leading causes of hearing loss. What is less well-known or understood is what it is like to live with congenital hearing loss.
I am one of the 5 of every 1,000 teens that were born with congenital hearing loss. Without my hearing aids, I can’t participate in a normal conversation unless I am able to see the the person speaking well enough to read lips. Hearing aids help a lot. In a quiet environment I can hear cat’s meow, and I can hear raindrops. A lot of kids with congenital hearing loss can’t. During an active school day with normal background noise, I probably miss 60% of what is said, even when I am wearing my hearing aids. In other words, hearing aids are not like glasses. They don’t correct hearing the way that glasses correct vision. They boost all of the noise around me, not just the sounds I want to hear.
In other ways, I’m like any other teenager. I have good days and bad days. There are things that I’m good at and other things… not so much. There are people I get along with well, and there are some that I don’t. A lot of times people don’t know how to handle my hearing loss. They don’t know what to say or how loudly to say it. I’d like people to be aware of my hearing loss so that I can communicate with them, but I’d also like them to understand that it doesn’t define me. And I imagine that’s true about other disabilities as well.
So, if you’d like to be friends with someone like me — or you’d like to get to know them better to see if you would — here’s the truth about teen hearing loss:
-Understand that it is hard for me to hear, so it would be nice if you would speak up, look at me so I can lip read, or repeat things without getting annoyed with me. But it’s probably not necessary to yell. You don’t need to know sign language, but it is a great skill to have, and it can be fun!
-You cannot whisper secrets in my ear because I cannot hear them…but you can mouth them to me without vocalizing because I can read lips! That comes in handy, but it can work both ways. I’m aware of what people are saying if I can see their faces, even if they are talking about me and think I can’t overhear.
-Don’t make fun of me because I sing out of tune. It is really hard to sing in tune if you can’t hear well!
-Texting and video chat are much easier than phone conversations even though some words do get lost. That doesn’t mean to not call me, though. When we are speaking on the phone, just realize it may pose an extra challenge.
-Realize that when we are in a crowded area, and it is loud, I cannot hear you. Please don’t just walk away from me if I’m looking the other way…
-If I don’t seem to acknowledge you or be cooperating, chances are that I might not have heard you; so, please don’t get “disgusted” with me asking you to repeat yourself or angry with me for not following your directions.
-Allow me to go get new hearing aid batteries immediately when my hearing aid batteries go dead. I cannot plan ahead for that; it just happens. If you make me wait, then I cannot hear anything, and it is VERY frustrating for me.
-Remember that hearing aids don’t “fix” my hearing loss like glasses fix vision problems.
-I don’t wear my hearing aids when I sleep. Please be aware of that if you need to wake me. Once at a summer camp, everyone from my tent left to go see a meteor shower without realizing that I hadn’t heard the counselors come in and was still sleeping. In case of an emergency, this could be especially important!
-It takes a lot of effort for me to hear and understand sounds because there is a lot of distortion of sounds. Usually I can laugh at myself, but sometimes I need extra patience from my friends.
-Please don’t exclude me from events just because I wear hearing aids. One time I was the only girl in my class not invited to a swimming party. It hurt to be excluded. I think that people simply may not have known whether or not I could participate, and they didn’t want to embarrass themselves or me by asking. I can swim and enjoy being on a boat, like everyone else. If you want to include a friend with a disability in an activity, don’t be afraid to ask. They’ve been figuring it out all their lives.
Not everyone with hearing loss will experience it as I do — just like no one else shares your experiences exactly — but it helps to know and to share with others something of what it’s like to find your way when your way is different than a lot of the people’s around you. It also gives you a different perspective on life: You see people’s strengths and challenges differently than you might have otherwise. I bet there are things about you that work that same way, too.
Claire Herden is a sophomore in high school. She’s had hearing aids since she was 20-months-old and has experienced hearing loss as long as she can remember. She enjoys art, crafts, animals, and her go cart. She loves to travel, meet new people, and see new places.