|Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies
Diva in Hiding: Suffering from Hearing Aid Vanity
Do not push your hair behind your ears. Do not push your hair behind your ears. Do not push your hair behind your ears. Do not push your hair behind your ears.
One would think after having worn hearing aids for twenty-four years, I'd be comfortable with others seeing my hearing aids.
I was reminded of this recently, after moving to a new state to begin training for a graduate teaching assistantship. On the last day of the weeklong training, while sitting across from my boss and surrounded by my colleagues of one week, I did the unthinkable. I identified myself as a hearing aid user.
The topic had come up when my boss began the day with an apology for the ringing in his ears. He might need us to repeat ourselves that day. Apparently, he had spent too much of his youth at concerts without hearing protection.
"But, I won't get a hearing aid," he said. "I'm too vain."
"We'll have to have a conversation about that," I announced.
His eyes swept the table, trying to pick out the owner of the voice from a clump of graduate teaching assistants.
I helped him out by waiting until his eyes were near my mouth to finish my statement. "I have hearing aids."
I regretted the words immediately. The quiet conversations taking place around the table stopped. Heads turned down as the other graduate teaching assistants took a renewed interest in the orientation materials we'd all read and discussed several times already. As another teaching assistant, the woman with long curly brown hair sitting off to my right would later tell me, she wanted to be nowhere near this conversation. My soon-to-be officemate, who was tucked away at a corner of the table with the only other male teaching assistant, remembers thinking, "What a stupid thing to say."
I hadn't lied about my status in my application. I had, in fact, used it. The year before, I had served as undergraduate representative for my alma mater's English department, and in completing my application, I had learned all too well about the margin left open for diversity. The literal margin, that is–a one-inch column at the right-hand side of each evaluation form, allowing for notation of any detail gleaned from the letter of interest or curriculum vitae that might lend itself well to claims of a diverse faculty. But, from what I could tell, my boss hadn't made note of that detail planted in my statement of interest, and I was glad. There hadn't been any of the lingering eye contact with me, exaggerated lip movements, or curious glances caught by the corner of my eye when turning my head.
But now, I could feel my hearing aids growing larger in my ears–huge, noticeable, and ugly. I felt the old paranoia of everybody staring at my hearing aids, curling their lips in disgust, and I wished I hadn't given into the warmth of the stuffy basement room by pulling my shoulder-length dyed-blond hair into a ponytail. I should have known better. I should have remembered.
My boss's initial response to my announcement was a peculiar expression. Over the previous four days, he had established himself as cool and collected through his quick and often sarcastic responses to our questions. Gazing at me now, elbows propped on the table, eyes blank behind his glasses and lips parted, he seemed to be searching for the most appropriate response.
He came up with something along the lines of "Oh really?" before he regained his composure, and then continued, asking how long I'd had hearing aids and about the nature of my hearing loss. After my responses, he told me I was lucky and shared a story of person he knew, a cousin perhaps, born with a hearing loss that wasn't discovered until grade school. Had the hearing loss I was born with not been discovered and aided so early, when I was two years old, I might not be doing so well. He said something like that anyway. I can't be sure; I'd stopped listening.
The last thing I felt in that moment of outing myself as hearing-aided was "lucky." I hated my hearing aids. In effort to disguise my need for them in conversation, I had mastered the art of hiding my hearing loss by reading lips and then pressing my own lips together thoughtfully before responding, buying myself time as I racked my brain, searching for the word that probably belonged in the sentence I'd only heard in snippets.
During orientation week, I had been playing up my North Dakota accent, drawing out my 'O's, hoping to thwart any potential identifications of the speech impediment that occasionally surfaced, reminding me of my childhood recesses spent in speech therapy sessions in an unused art room at the dark end of the school. In the past, people had asked me outright if I had a hearing difficulty, and then told me they'd thought so because of the way I spoke. Like the landlord I had visited with when looking for an apartment. "I thought so," he said. "My sister works with the deaf, and you've got that nasal quality to your voice."
For the rest of that last day of orientation, I reverted to my old habit of directly facing the people I was speaking to so they couldn't get a sidelong look into my ear. When we got up for lunch break, I lingered in my seat until everyone else had left the room so I wouldn't have to walk in front of them, allowing a direct view of my hearing aids.
My willingness to wear hearing aids has nothing to do with a lack of vanity. I wear hearing aids because vanity doesn't get to be a factor in the decision. Less than ten decibels away from the category of deafness, my unaided hearing loss would keep me out of mainstream society. I'd be managing interpreters and real-time captioning rather than batteries and earwax.
As I told my boss, I received my first set of hearing aids when I was two, and in that respect, I was lucky. My mom had begun to suspect my hearing loss before my second birthday, noting the funny things I did. Like when my dad came home from work, I didn't act excited to see him the way a happy toddler should. Instead, I kept my back turned as I played on the floor. I startled sometimes too. Mom would walk up to me from behind, talking to me, and I'd ignore her, as usual, until she was standing right next to me. Then, my body would twitch, and I'd jerk my head up to look at her with wide eyes that asked, "Where did you come from?"
She drove me an hour to Madison, Wisconsin for my first hearing test, and then held me in her lap in a small booth, which took up a tiny corner of the audiologist's office. Tones played throughout the booth and wooden boxes with plastic-shaded fronts glowed yellow each time I turned my head. To my right, the yellow light revealed a red-vested toy monkey who pressed his cymbals together silently. To the left, there was a stuffed dog with a short tail that shot up from its backside. It rocked back and forth, noiselessly, making no sound to detract from the tones permeating the booth.
After stepping out of the booth and having witnessed firsthand what I cannot hear, my mom listened as the audiologist explained that I would never succeed at a regular school and that I should attend the School for the Deaf in Madison. If my parents preferred, I could live with a foster family.
But, my mom wouldn't have it. As she drove home from the clinic in rush hour traffic, with tears streaming down her face, she vowed that I would attend a regular school and live an ordinary life. She was licensed in special education and knew from her training that hearing loss is seldom a solitary affliction. But, she knew me as well and had seen two daughters through my age. I was normal enough.
She took me to see Stan, the round, bottom-heavy older gentleman with thick gray hair parted low on the side who would become my hearing aid dealer for years to come. Stan had a fondness for his square-backed rolling desk chair and used to foot-pedal himself in circles around me, from ear to ear.
I remember liking Stan, and I didn't mind going to see him. The wood-paneled walls of his office reminded me of my maternal grandparents' house. Frequented by older customers, his office smelled like my grandparents, too–a mix of sleepy hair and spicy aftershave.
With a plastic, wide-tipped, pink-filled syringe in hand, Stan tucked my blond mess of hair behind my two-year-old ears. Next, he used the syringe to fill my ears with strange pink goo. He delivered the final squirt of pink into each ear with a flourish, spiraling along the outer curves of my ears.
The skin around my ear had tightened in anticipation as Stan pushed his chair back from the counter where he'd picked up the syringe. But, the material didn't feel cold or wet as it inflated into my ear. At room temperature, it felt thick and heavy. I relaxed, calmed by the pressure against the innermost part of my ear. Mom wanted me to turn my head so she could see the pink glob that had replaced my ear, but I ducked my chin away from her hand. I'd had enough attention.
As I grew older, I learned to enjoy having molds made. During the five minutes it took for the material to dry, I'd loosen my neck, letting my head fall side to side with the pink heaviness of each ear. I'd get to make faces, too. I'd open my mouth wide, moving my jaw side to side and in circles to allow for the changes in ear shape that come with eating and talking.
When those first molds were ready, Stan pulled them from my ears and offered the bulbous pink globs up to my nose for inspection. I was supposed to be curious, but I wrinkled my nose and shook my head quickly in refusal. I didn't like the rounded, protruding shape of the space inside my ears.
A few weeks after my first visit to Stan, my first pair of hearing aids arrived. Behind-the-Ear Zenetron ZP50s were my model. I resisted at first, swinging my head back and forth as Mom plugged the foreign and strange feeling Zenetron ears into the sides of my head.
They came in two parts. The mold, shaped after the dried pink goo Stan had pulled from my ear, was made of a soft, creamy tan plastic. Mom pressed the mold into my ear, trying not to poke me or push too hard as she did so. A clear, flexible tube extended from this mold and hooked around the front of my outer ear. Behind my ear, the tube attached to the hard, plastic, darker beige-colored hearing aid, which housed the microphone, speaker, and volume control. The hearing aid was as wide as my index finger, as long as my pinky, and curved to rest against my outer ear.
This curvature also lent itself nicely to my not-quite-three-year-old fist. I'd wrap my fingers around the hearing aid, pluck the mold from my ear, and toss the whole thing to the floor. When Mom called Stan to ask what to do about this habit of chucking the hearing aids, he wanted to know where my hearing aids were right then. They were on the china cabinet. He told her to put them on the floor where I could play with them. Mom balked at this and reminded him of how much they had cost. But, they were mine, he told her. I had to get used to this fact and used to them.
Mom refused to put them on the floor. Instead, she began leaving them on the kitchen table for me to look at. I examined them, letting the hearing aids flop from side to side, dangling from their tubes as I held the soft molds between my thumb and index finger.
Inspired by my curiosity, Mom put them in my ears and turned the volume control to the blue line Stan had marked with a pen. The hum of the refrigerator and the fluorescent lights overhead snapped into my ears first, making it seem like the hearing aids buzzed. Mom and Dad cheered, letting me know the feel of the Zenetrons in my ears, the buzzing, and the loudness of their voices were a good thing.
At first, I always pulled the Zenetrons out again as soon as my parents stopped applauding. I tried to take them from the kitchen, wanting to run around the house with them in my hands the way I did with my floppy-armed and button-eyed monkey, but Mom wouldn't have it. Just before I'd take off, she'd pull the hearing aids from my fingers and set them back on the table. Soon enough, I'd wander back to the kitchen to turn them over in my hands again.
Gradually, I let them stay in my ears longer and longer. During these short stretches in the hearing world, the Zenetrons began to teach me the meanings of different sounds around me.
I didn't understand the silliness of the telephone ringing. My head swung around to identify the source of that unprecedented noise, trying to figure out what it was doing. In time, I began to see that noise made Mom or Dad walk over to pick up the telephone. They'd talk at it for a while, then put it back down, where it was silent again for as long as it wanted to be. There was no pattern to it.
The doorbell was a strange, random sound as well, but I came to realize that noise always made our golden retriever, Cookie, bark like crazy at the front door, and it meant someone–Mom, Dad, or one of my older sisters–would open the door, and there would be someone standing on the cement steps to our house.
Cartoons became a whole new experience. I'd lie on the brown carpet of the living room with my chin in my hands, mesmerized by the perky voices suddenly accompanying the bright faces and movements of Care Bears, Smurfs, and the Get-Along-Gang. They made noises like my parents and my sisters made, putting sounds with the already familiar movements of their faces and hands.
Not being able to hear speech hadn't kept me from absorbing the concept of meaning. I knew it was time to go when Mom pointed toward my feet and pulled her mouth into a familiar pattern of puckers and stretches. Through the Zenetrons, the sound of her voice saying, "Get your shoes," came to mean the same thing. Hearing aids simply provided a new means of communicating. A novelty.
When I began to get used to the novelty of sound, I wanted to wear my hearing aids. In the morning, I'd pull the Zenetrons off my dresser and put them on myself. For the first few months, Mom didn't let me wear them out of the house, and when in the house, she'd watch the clock. I tired too easily sometimes, and then I'd whine because my head ached. Then she'd gently pull the Zenetrons from my ears, and I'd slip back into quietness where my mind was allowed to rest.
At night, I sometimes crawled out of bed. I would walk carefully through the dark hallway, dragging the side of my hand along the wall to my parents' bedroom. I was looking for Mom, wanting to know why she was calling me. But, she wasn't. My over-stimulated brain was remembering the Zenetrons' new lessons of the day and sending ghosts of these sounds to my unaided ears. Kim, listen to Mommy. Kim, listen to Daddy. Kim, listen to the telephone. Kim, listen. Listen, Kim, listen.
These echoes have stayed with me, but blurred over the years into what some dismiss as tinnitus–a ringing of the ears common to those with hearing loss. When lying in bed, especially after a hard day, I hear echoes of the pitches and volumes from the day, reminiscent of my dog's barking, my cell phone's ringing, and the voices of people in my life. Throughout the night, the hum of those voices reminds me of past conversations that replay in my mind.
I am accustomed to letting people discover my hearing aids or hearing loss for themselves, which most of my friends do, eventually. Either they see my hearing aids by standing at the right angle behind me or they notice how often I don't react to distant sounds. Then, they ask, and I tell them. For the most part, though, I don't like people to know I have hearing aids, especially not when still within the realms of first impressions.
I am, in fact, quite vain. The unthinkable part of announcing myself as a hearing aid user was that I'd never done it before, not to a crowd of people who didn't already know anyway. I blame this insecurity on the fifth grade. Despite the sixteen years that have passed, I still haven't forgotten the nickname given to me by a boy I'll call Ron. I was the new girl that year. In pursuit of my dad's career, my family moved from Wisconsin to North Dakota during the summer. I wasn't sad about leaving Parkside Elementary. Bel Air sounded much more sophisticated.
I wasn't even sad about leaving my friends behind. I expected my life in North Dakota to be exactly as it had been in Wisconsin. My neighborhood in Wisconsin was the perfect neighborhood. Of course, I didn't know this until I had left it, and now I long for it. Had no one yet dreamt of the snow globe, my childhood neighborhood would have been its inspiration. We were a tidy circle of houses nestled just inside the city limits, so close to the country I could see a dairy farm from our kitchen window. Tracing the circumference of our green-grassed backyards were railroad tracks, complete with a bridge I was never allowed to walk on, but sometimes did. Cushioning the noise and the danger of the tracks, a strip of woods, less than fifty feet deep, filled in the distance between the tracks and our property lines, marked by a barbwire fence. In those woods, my dad and I built a tree house out of two-by-fours.
I shared that tree house with my best friend, Lisa, who lived five houses down from me. When we were not in our tree house or one of the pools in our backyards, the two of us waged war with Travis and Chad, two boys from our class who lived on the other side, their side of the neighborhood. During times of peace, Lisa and I wandered the neighborhood together. Across the street from my family lived a woman with endless bowls of ice cream and next door a man who let us kids practice throwing an axe at a tree stump in his backyard. I had everything I needed for entertainment, and I knew it.
What I didn't realize was that I also had everything I needed to protect me. More than just barbwire fences and strips of woods. I had an entire society that already knew of and had accepted my hearing loss and hearing aids. Growing up with me, my classmates in Wisconsin learned about my difference before they learned prejudice.
They even learned the details of my hearing loss and how my hearing aids worked during a speech my fourth grade teacher bribed me into giving. He had offered a prize I couldn't refuse, the 1990 The Baby Sitter's Club calendar. I stood in front of the room, watching as my classmates passed around an old pair of hearing aids–the Zenetrons.
They held the hearing aids up to their ears with wide eyes, poking their neighbors to "say something" as they giggled over how loud everything was. The students without a hearing aid in hand quizzed me on what sounds I could and could not hear without my hearing aids.
"Doing what? Honking?"
"What about this?" A boy slammed his hand onto his desk.
I shrugged, and Lisa, who I had convinced our teacher to let stand at the front of the room with me, chimed in, "Only if she was right next to you." Lisa had been happy to stand at the front of the room with me. Considering our habit of weekly sleepovers and swimming parties, she had seen plenty of my hearing aids and what I can't hear without them. They weren't exciting to her.
When I was done, the kids clapped, and I smiled. Lisa and I sat down, rolling our eyes at each other in relief. During the fourth grade, after that speech made my hearing loss a seemingly ordinary topic of conversation, some of the students began to point out my speech impediment. Adam, Lisa's "boyfriend" since the first grade, stood in front of me, or, rather, below me–he was the shortest boy in the class–and pronounced carefully before lunch one day, "Pud-ding."
I repeated, "Pudding."
I shrugged, and then we giggled. I still have no idea how to say "pudding," but I figured out pizza. At the bus stop one day, I threw my arms up in the air Rocky-style and announced to the gang it was "Pizza day," pronouncing it like the leaning tower, Pisa.
Lisa put her face right up to mine, "Peet-za."
I paused, and then repeated slowly. "Peee-sa."
She rolled her eyes, we giggled, and I resumed my spot in the grass, with my toes pressed against the edge of the cement curb, bobbing my body up and down as I waited for the bus. I didn't figure out "pizza" that day, but it didn't matter. To my friends in Wisconsin, I had a speech impediment because I was a girl who just happened to need hearing aids.
But, in North Dakota, I was the girl with hearing aids. My family's new neighborhood in North Dakota wasn't the sort of neighborhood that lent itself to building tree houses or staking out territory for war games. We had trees in our backyard, but they were pine trees, unsuitable for tree houses, and planted perfectly in rows, too precise to serve a child's imagination. The neighborhood was hill upon hill and none of the houses sat at the same level as the others, none of their windows looked the other in the eye. Our house sat near the top of a road that made its way up a hill in the shape of a long, exaggerated 'S.' All of the houses on this street were brown and seemed to look the same, blending into one another, but ours was different. It was brown as well, but as I pointed out in the tenth grade, during a speech in which I was required to give directions from the school to my house, a visitor could always spot the oddity of our front door–our bright blue, almost teal front door.
I stood alone on the playground the first day of fifth grade, my eyes down, following the movement of the gravel as I moved a rock back and forth with my toe of my new tennis shoes, waiting for the bell to ring so I could begin my first day as the new girl.
I had been excited for the first day until I had to stand alone on the playground. Dad had walked me down the hill from our house to the school. The short walk was exciting. No more waking up early to catch the half-hour bus ride in the morning. I was decked out in a new jean skirt and sporting a new denim backpack with brown leather trim that smelled like my dad's work gloves. I was ready to make new friends at a new school, in our new neighborhood, in our new town.
As soon as I'd waved goodbye to my dad and walked around to the back of the building where all the kids were playing, I froze up and forgot the nice smile and "Hi, I'm Kim," I'd practiced in the mirror that morning. There were too many kids. I could tell who must be a third grader or younger, but I couldn't make out the difference between the fifth, sixth, or fourth graders reuniting with old friends, slapping each others' backs and pushing each other on the basketball court, baseball diamond, and monkey bars. I didn't know where I belonged, with whom I was supposed to be playing, so I picked a rock and gave it my full attention.
Two girls, both skinny, one with pale skin and almost white hair, the other Asian with long, shiny black hair caught my eye, legs first. They stood in front of me, bodies tilted from the waist, heads together so their faces were below mine, peering up at my downcast gaze. I acknowledged them by looking up through my bangs.
The girls said, "Hi," in unison.
I answered, "Hi," and then stared at them, at a loss for words.
After an awkward moment, they walked away, both sneaking a glance at me over their shoulders before they caught each other's gaze in an expression of confusion and pity.
I fixed my attention back on the rock until the bell rang. The sky was overcast, and I was cold, so I shifted my weight from shoe to shoe as I rubbed one bare leg against the other.
The two girls were in my fifth grade classroom. Mr. Wetzel, our teacher who I would quickly rename Wetzel the Pretzel in my letters back home to Lisa, gave us our seating chart by yelling at us. He was clearly near retirement, wore thick glasses with bold black frames, and tried to display a sense of humor by always responding to a question from any student with a drawn out, "Huh?" that he said with his tongue lining the bottom of his mouth, touching the top of his bottom lip. When one of the students shouted out at him one day to, "Get a hearing aid!" he responded with a flutter of the lips and mimed unrolling a strip of duct tape as he said, "I'll show you a hearing aid."
I got my seat, on the left side of the room, my S-name placing me somewhere near the end of the alphabetical order that had begun at the front right corner of the room. Jill, the girl with pale blond hair sat a few seats in front of me. She had an R-last name. Jennifer, a J-last name, sat in a desk toward the front of the room in the second row.
The first day wasn't so bad. I sat with Jill and Jennifer at lunch, and at recess, they let me hang alongside them. But then, on the third day, in a fit to get ready for school, I pulled my unruly hair into a ponytail and sneered at the mirror as I tried to flatten my bangs. My hair had darkened over the last few years, from blond like Lisa's to a dark, mousy brown. When I had given up on my hair, I bolted out the door and ran to school, not thinking once of my now visible hearing aids. I had switched from the bulky behind-the-ear (BTE) aids to in-the-ear aids a few years earlier, but my in-the-ear aids were a full mold, utilizing the entire cavity of my ear.
Before the starting bell rang, a crowd of boys walked over to my desk. They looked at each other, and then a red-haired boy stepped forward. "You have hearing aids."
Taken aback, I didn't respond. He hadn't said it like a question.
For the rest of the day, the other students wrinkled their noses as they stared at my ears in contempt. I became Hearing Aid Woman.
I don't remember the first time Ron called me this, but I still hear it to this day when I meet someone new. I sometimes expect everyone to recognize me as Hearing Aid Woman and twist their faces with disgust, even if they can't see my hearing aids.
In my Easter basket one year, I received a fluffy, yellow chick that chirped when it sat in my hand. It had two electric nodes on its bottom and, sitting in my hand, my skin completed its circuit, allowing it to cheep, cheep, cheep at me. Now I carry this strange paranoia that, when I meet someone new, a healthy young male perhaps, and shake his hand, his skin on mine will somehow complete my own circuit, and my hearing aids will announce their presence with their own cheeping.
"Hello, my name is Kimber–CHEEEEEEEP! " Look at me! A giant, walking, talking Hearing Aid Chick!
I attribute this strange fiction to Aaron, one of the friendlier members of my fifth grade class. My growth spurt had paid attention to detail, and my hearing aids didn't fit so well anymore, causing them to whistle often. Like anything with a microphone, hearing aids squeal when they are occluded, something caused by even the movement of one's jaw when dealing with a space as small as the ear canal. Aaron had incredible hearing, super hearing, and whenever my hearing aids chirped, his head would swing around and he would contort his face, expressing the horror of such a sound coming from the insides of my ears. After a while, I started wincing back even though the squealing inside my head wasn't that bad. I was used to it. With his thick wire-framed glasses, Aaron's face looked so goofy, and so much more curious than cruel, I couldn't bring myself to blame him for this attention he paid to my hearing aids.
I blamed the boys who paid their attention behind my back. Ron and his friends would sit behind me, whispering my name repeatedly, each time a little louder. They were testing me, testing my hearing loss. At first, I turned around every time I heard my name, only to see a crowd of boys double over in laughter and to learn the number it had taken that time. "Six! Oh my god! I said her name six times!" Then one of the boys would invariably turn to face me and in a singsong voice, remind me I was "Hearing Aid Womaaaan." This was outrageously funny–for them. Once I knew their game, I stopped responding to my name at all. I sat, calm, stoic, ignoring my own name, and blinking back any wetness that betrayed my bluff.
When the boy in the class named Tim noticed I hesitated whenever Mr. Wetzel called out Tim or Kim, Tim began to hesitate as well. When, out of habit, I glanced over at Tim after the sound of maybe-my-name, he'd pretend not to notice, and I'd get up. When I was halfway to the front of the room, he'd nudge his friends and they'd laugh loudly.
"Mr. Wetzel needs to call her Hearing Aid Woman. Then she'd know who he's talking to."
At these moments, I hated my hearing aids more than anything. I was convinced my hearing loss wouldn't be an issue if it weren't for the ugly reminders perched at the sides of my head.
As grade school bullies go, Ron was a nightmare. He was the sort of boy who would spit in your mouth or spread glue underneath your desk, sometimes both, sometimes during the same day. He cheated on his homework and threatened you with pointy, rubber-handled scissors if you were unlucky enough to get his test on the days we graded each other's papers. On the day a student's dad brought in a box of chicks from the hatchery, one of the chicks disappeared into Ron's pocket to later meet an unknown fate, probably to be splattered against a wall or decapitated by a bike tire.
Though Ron was more cruel than curious, I never dared to publicly hate him for naming me Hearing Aid Woman. I couldn't hate him because I was supposed to love him. Everyone in the fifth grade was obliged to love him, even the boys. He was the perfect ten-year-old male specimen, and we girls crowded together at recess time to fawn over his lanky limbs and stylishly mulleted blond hair, spiked in front, slightly longer in back. The boys followed his path on the playground, mimicking his moves on the monkey bars and basketball court. Sometimes they even showed up to class with knockoffs of Ron's clothing and haircut. No one ever questioned Ron's status as the cutest boy in our class.
I admit, only part of my crush on Ron was due to group psychology. He was cute. But, I got over him the day he showed off a new move on the playground. After the bell rang, Ron made his departure for the building doors by performing a judo kick off the monkey bars into the side of my head. I was late from recess, on my hands and knees, searching through the grass and my tears for the hearing aid he had knocked out of my ear. Jennifer, who stayed with me, found it and pointed to it in the grass with one of her long red-painted fingernails, not wanting to pick it up. Inspection revealed it was not broken, and I mumbled something about how I would have made him pay for a new one had I found it anything but whole. For the rest of the day, I kept my hearing aid in my pocket and cupped my hand over the side of my head, trying to stifle the pain resonating throughout my ear and avoiding any questions about where my hearing aid had gone.
Ron might not have meant to kick me, but I enjoyed it anyway when I heard years later he was in jail for armed robbery. I like to think Ron's jail time was a matter of karma catching up with him for the junior high experience he sentenced me to. I made the transition into the seventh grade feeling like a walking set of hearing aids, which, unfortunately, is exactly what I was to some of the other kids. Like my classmates at Bel Air, the kids at Bishop Ryan quickly noticed my very visible hearing aids. In the way that people sometimes ask if I've had an obvious haircut, people asked if I had hearing aids. Oftentimes, I shrugged and nodded, waiting for further questions, seldom receiving any. Other times, when I was feeling bold, I gazed back at them blankly, said "No," and then walked away, letting them figure out for themselves it had been a stupid question.
Though hearing aid technology has advanced greatly during my lifetime, I have always taken advantage of aesthetics before sound. I'm on what must be near my tenth set of hearing aids and, like each new set, the set I wear now is much smaller than my last. The pair I wear now are completely-in-the-canals, set so deeply in my ears, a clear plastic tether extends from the molds to give me something to grab onto when removing them. They're tiny, barely visible, and I know this. But, that didn't matter on that last day of orientation week. There is an angle at which they are visible, and through staring sessions with the mirror, it is an angle I know well. During my senior year of college, when the sound coming from my last set of hearing aids had begun to fade, showing its age, I visited with my audiologist about my options for a new set. My perfect timing excited Jerry. I was in the market just in time to benefit from a new technological leap. Widex, one of the top hearing aid manufacturers, had just released its new model, the Diva. I smiled at the name. Sure, I'm a Diva kind of a gal.
Jerry went on to describe what made the Diva so fabulous, describing the digitally programmable fifteen channels of sound as though he was selling me a car, which he practically was, at $6000 a pair. I was impressed and pretty much sold until he mentioned the final detail.
"But, because of the severity of your hearing loss and the size of your ear canals, we'll have to go with the BTEs." He said this simply, like it was a matter of gray interior over black, not of getting a full-size Dodge Ram over the tiny Mini Cooper I wanted.
I made my response clear. "Ha!" I couldn't believe the man who had always supported my quest for invisible hearing aids was actually suggesting I revert to the kind of hearing aids I had come to remember as likening me to Dumbo in the first grade. Lined up in our rows for gym class, I was always the girl in the front with her "ears" flapping up and down at the sides of her head as we did jumping jacks. This diva would never wear ugly BTEs again.
Jerry persisted. "If you were my daughter, I'd want you to at least try these."
I relented. He had zeroed in on my easily displaced guilt. Jerry has the same dark hair and sinewy cheeks as my dad, who was paying for the hearing aids. The agreement was that I'd try them for at least one week. Jerry was convinced that once I got used to the technology, I'd refuse to give them up.
I hated them immediately. But, I knew I always hated new hearing aids. Improvements in technology meant better sound clarity, better distinction between noise and sound. In acquiring a new set of hearing aids always came an adjustment period. I had to get used to the hum of lights and computers not being quite so loud, stop expecting that the hearing aids weren't as powerful as the last pair. With each new set of hearing aids, silence was a little more silent and I had to let go of the feeling that I wouldn't hear the next sound to come upon me.
I still hated them after a week. I couldn't talk on my cell phone. At first, out of habit, I placed incoming calls to the mold and tube set in my ear rather than the microphone to which that tube ran behind my ear. Once I learned to place the phone back further, behind my ear, the receiver part of my phone was too far away from my mouth and the person on the other end couldn't hear my replies. I stopped answering my phone in public. I felt ridiculous moving the phone up and down the side of my face, trying to patch the distance between my own voice and the voice on the other end.
I stopped liking being in public, period. Even with my hair combed straight down over my ears, the hearing aids felt huge, obtrusive, ugly. I wasn't just uneasy, I was angry. I felt like a freak. I felt like the women I'd once read about in a study. Their faces were painted to appear scarred. After viewing themselves in mirrors and before heading into public, the makeup was removed under the guise of needing to be "set." The women reported extreme discomfort in social interactions due to obvious staring at the scars and limited eye contact. I know better than to think my hearing aids are constantly visible, but that doesn't stop me from catching sidelong glances I'm certain are pointed at my ears.
I gave the hearing aids back to Jerry and told him I wanted the tiniest hearing aids he could get me. I didn't care about maximizing fifteen channels. I was happy to sacrifice better hearing–which I hadn't waited long enough to get used to in the BTEs–for aesthetics. In fact, I wanted no aesthetics; I wanted tiny, barely visible.
I got it. The less sophisticated, much smaller, completely-in-the-canal variation of the Divas arrived in a few weeks. They were so small they had to be distinguished by color, the right hearing aid encased in a bright red plastic, and the left a bright blue, almost teal. Each had a beige cap. I loved how tiny and perfect they seemed, like baby toes. Aw, look at my teeny, tiny, perfect little hearing aids! After happily shoving the hearing aids deep inside my ears, I announced without even performing my routine jaw-circle test for feedback that they were, "Perfect."
I proudly pushed my hair behind my ears and sauntered out of Jerry's office. Relieved to not have to avoid eye contact the way I had the week before, I smiled and announced a "Good morning!" to everyone who passed by. These are the hearing aids of a diva.
And they are. My hearing loss is not what embarrasses me. It is the hearing aids I wear because of this hearing loss that I want to hide. I am content to watch TV with the captions on, and I decided long ago I don't care that I often have to ask people to spell simple words. I refuse to take out my hearing aids in public, and I never admit it when a hearing aid battery unexpectedly dies. Hearing aids, no matter how small, are just too ugly, and I'm just too vain.
If hearing aids were beautiful, I'd proudly display them. If they could make me look smart the way some glasses do, I'd spend hours picking out the right pair. But, they aren't beautiful and they don't make me look intelligent. They're strange globs of beige plastic that may as well be melted down Barbie appendages. Having these in my ears makes me look, feel different, off, like something-not-quite-right, and I can't help but want to keep them hidden.
What's worse is hearing aids weren't always ugly. Before technology took over the task of making hearing aids nearly invisible, novelty had its run. I am in love with the fancifulness that once went into hearing aid design. During the nineteenth century, the first hearing aid manufacturer, F.C. Rein, made all kinds of decorative hearing aids. Based in London, he made what was called an acoustic throne for King John VI of Portugal. Visitors who wished to speak to the king had to kneel down before him and speak into a gaping lion's mouth carved into the arm of the chair. There, the voice was funneled into the hollow arm and snaked into the king's ear through a single tube hidden behind the chair. I want a hearing aid that forces people to kneel before me. I want a hearing aid tucked behind my ear that is beautiful like Rein's floral Aurolese Phone with its funnel fluted and painted to resemble a single green and white flower. And I want it to give me the full sixty decibels I need, not just the ten it was made to offer.
I want today's technology to be beautiful. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, Sonotone and Dahlberg made "earring aids." On my computer desktop, I keep an image of Sonotone's black and white ad for its gold, leaf-shaped earring aids. I love the woma. That subtlety allows me to notice the one slightly crooked tooth that makes her entire smile so adorable.
I have searched for such earring aids made after the sixties and found only prototypes. With hearing aid technology changing so rapidly and single aids costing upward of $2000, the industry cannot afford the time or money it would take to stock a variety of encasings. Instead, they stick to the simple plastic molds, only sometimes venturing as far as offering colors other than beige. But, I don't want pink or purple, or polka dotted hean in this ad. I envy her confidence, her smile, and the subtlety of her earring aidsring aids. I don't want the creative alternatives–slip-on BTE covers in the shapes of lightening bolts or fish. Walleye Woman? I don't think so.
I would gladly be Hearing Aid Woman were it a matter of beauty rather than ridicule. Give me a pair of gold, leaf-shaped earring aids, and I'll happily flaunt them. I'll happily pose for an ad, probably even insist on it, suggesting Hearing Aid Woman as the caption.
On the day of the shoot, I'll be pampered endlessly, and by the time I walk to the set, I'll feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. Leaning back in a chair, I'll cross my legs and dip one shoulder back, beckoning the camera to come hither with my direct gaze and sly smile. With one graceful movement, I'll push my perfectly highlighted hair behind one ear, tracing the curve of my neck slowly, letting my fingers linger just above my clavicle for the benefit of the flash going off rapidly in front of me. The photographer will shout that I'm perfect, to "Hold that!" I'll hold the pose, keeping my face, neck, and fingers still until everything stiffens and I feel a twinge of anger toward the photographer, thinking he should realize I've had to stay in position far too long.
Then, the silliness of it all will hit me. I'll think I shouldn't have suggested Hearing Aid Woman, but rather, Hearing Aid Diva, and I'll laugh, ruining the pose. But, the photographer will not be angry, because, before my eyes closed, he will have caught on film the beginning of that laughter–the skin wrinkled around my twinkling eyes and my wide, happy mouth–and it will be the picture. It will be the final pick for the ad because it displays both my earring aids and my smile, but calls more attention to the one crooked tooth that makes my entire smile so adorable.
Later, I'll replace the Sonotone ad on my desktop with my own, typing beneath it a single, proud caption: Yes, I have hearing aids.
Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)