“Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.” - Helen Keller
Ever since I was diagnosed with severe hearing loss at the age of three, I’ve had to adapt to a very noisy world by learning how to communicate differently with others. Listening, reading lips, keeping up with conversations—these are all skills I’ve worked hard at perfecting so that I wouldn’t be treated differently or discriminated against for my hearing loss. It took many years for me to become comfortable talking about my hearing loss, but now, I proudly advocate and champion for the hearing health community. However, the recent news of the tragic killing of Daniel Harris, an unarmed deaf man in Charlotte, North Carolina, renewed a sense of fear about why I hid my hearing loss in the first place.
Daniel Harris’s death stood out, in part, because of a similar police encounter I had in high school. I was driving to our first basketball practice of the season, and I was in a hurry because I didn’t want to be late. In my haste, I rolled through a stop sign and ended up driving two more blocks until I noticed a police officer trying to pull me over. I had just gotten my driver’s license, and I was absolutely terrified. As he was yelling at me, I tried to explain that I didn’t hear his siren because I was hard of hearing, but he wrote it off as an excuse and gave me a citation. At that moment, I felt broken. It felt like everyone wanted me to change—to find a way to “fix” my hearing loss—so that they didn’t have to change their way of thinking. When I think back to that moment, I wonder what would have happened had I gotten out of the car. What if I had been shot—as Daniel Harris was—just because I was trying to let the officer know that I communicate differently?
I wish I could say that this was an isolated instance, but I’ve had my fair share of challenges living with hearing loss. I was endlessly bullied at school and discriminated against because I wore hearing aids. My peers didn’t know how to act around me, so I was often left out of social situations. I resorted to hiding my hearing loss so that I could protect myself from further ridicule and misunderstanding, especially in the workplace. It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that I realized how to use my struggle as a strength to promote advocacy and accessibility in hearing health.
I’ve often wondered what propagates stigma around hearing loss, illness, and disability, and I think it comes back to a lack of understanding. And I’m not simply talking about what’s appropriate to say or not (although that would be a start). Daniel Harris’ tragedy is a reminder that we need greater awareness about hearing loss, not just among law enforcement officials—who desperately need training so that they’re equipped to safely interact with deaf and hard of hearing individuals—but also as a culture. This is especially important as we look to the next generation. Age-related hearing loss does not discriminate: in fact, 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of developing hearing loss.
For the last twenty years, I’ve advocated for greater access to more affordable, socially acceptable technology and for more widespread awareness of my community—not only so we can be included in society, but also so that we can prevent ignorance from taking another life. With a younger generation at risk, it’s more important than ever that we push for change to de-stigmatize hearing loss so that when those individuals eventually join our community, they don’t feel shamed for being different, but welcomed and supported.
[originally published 9.1.2016 on LinkedIn]