Imagine if the isolation and social distancing endured during the Covid-19 pandemic never ended. Imagine you had to always worry about going to the grocery store or doctor’s office; that communicating with people was exhausting; and that every day, it felt easier to just stay home. This is a glimpse into what life is like for many people with hearing loss.
“Most people know someone with hearing loss, but almost no one knows what the experience is like or how to help,” says Cheri Perazzoli, president of the Hearing Loss Association of Washington, a nonprofit that provides information, support, education and advocacy. “Hearing loss impacts everything from our relationships and opportunities to simply being able to hear on the telephone.”
The invisible disability
Hearing loss affects one in five people in the U.S. — 1.5 million people in Washington state. It affects every age and population, and is more common than diabetes and cancer. Wherever you are, there is likely a person with hearing loss nearby. But chances are you can’t tell because they are not wearing a hearing aid. A 2018 study revealed that only about one-third of people with hearing loss wear hearing aids and less than half of adults who reported trouble hearing sought medical help.
“People with hearing loss rely on technology to stay connected,” Perazzoli says. “But there is an unfounded stigma associated with hearing loss and hearing aids that can make people reluctant to get help.”
The personal price for not acknowledging and managing a hearing loss can be high. Hearing loss leads to isolation, depression, family stress, and cognitive and balance difficulties. Many people give up things they love because they can’t hear well and won’t seek help.
A roadmap to living well with hearing loss
“Being diagnosed with hearing loss is a frightening and lonely experience,” says hearing health educator and HLAA-WA member Kimberly Parker. “Those of us with hearing loss know how it feels. And if we can help others face the challenge and learn to thrive, instead of merely survive, we will.”
HLAA-WA strives to do exactly that — help. For almost 30 years, the all-volunteer organization has been providing a community and a roadmap for people in Washington State living with hearing loss. For example, the organization offers practical advice about hearing aids and how to find a good provider. But the organization goes far beyond hearing aids.
Trained volunteers with hearing loss lead support groups to help you talk openly without fear. Webinars address common topics—employment, parenting, travel—but from the perspective of having hearing loss. And the HLAA-WA website is a repository for communication tips, the latest news and research, and information on assistive listening technologies, hearing-friendly venues, and financial support for hearing aids.
“Finding a community of peers who understand what you are facing and who share similar struggles can be invaluable toward decreasing isolation,” says Perazzoli. “HLAA-WA’s goal is to help people at every stage of the hearing loss journey.”
Building hearing-friendly communities
To build hearing-friendly communities, it’s necessary to normalize hearing loss and provide seamless accommodation. This would result in alleviating the stigma, supporting hearing health care for all, and an infrastructure that leverages existing technologies to deliver access in public places.
“We want to make communication access as ubiquitous as wheelchair ramps,” says HLAA-WA’s Perazzoli. “At the end of the day, we all want to be seen and heard.”
How to help yourself or someone you love deal with hearing loss
Acknowledging your hearing loss is the first step. For help, join a hearing-loss support group; HLAA-WA offers HOPE meetings: Hearing Other People’s Experiences. Visit a hearing health provider to have your hearing loss evaluated and to discuss available solutions.
The Hearing Loss Association of Washington helps people of all ages live well with hearing loss by providing support and information, community education and by advocating for hearing-friendly laws.