Let’s Make Hearing Loss a Visible Disability

Hearing loss is often referred to as an invisible disability, because there are no telltale markers — no wheelchair, no white cane. It’s invisible even compared to Deafness, with its vibrant silent language.

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NYPD Officer Daniel Carione and his attorney, Colleen Meenan, who successfully sued for the right to wear hearing aids.

For a long time, people with hearing loss wanted to keep it invisible. They wanted hearing aids no one could see, they pretended they could hear when they couldn’t. Even today hearing aid companies advertise: “So small no one will ever know you’re wearing them.” Hearing loss is for old people, or damaged people, and our culture values youth and health.

But as more and more of us use hearing aids – both because we are getting older and because we live in a noisy society – we want accommodations. We want captions on our TV’s and in movie theaters, we want hearing assistive devices that work in lectures and live theater. (The hearing assistive device that works best in large venues is the induction loop, hands down.) We want to be able to hear – even if it means “hearing” through captions – in an emergency room or hospital, in a courthouse, at a town hall meeting, at a house of worship, at a lecture, on an airplane, at a political rally, on public transportation.

We want to be able to work, and we want the accommodations that make that possible.

Hearing loss is a disability that prevents us from participating in corporate, municipal, religious, cultural, and educational life — unless accommodations are provided. Accommodations insure equal access.

We are guaranteed accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But if we want to claim those accommodations, we need to acknowledge not only that we have hearing loss but that it is a disability. (That’s the name of the act, after all.)

This notion was reinforced by the speaker at our HLAA-NYC chapter meeting last week. Dan Carione, a New York City police offer with an illustrious 28-year career, was forced to retire in 2011 when the NYPD decided officers could not wear hearing aids. He fought that ruling and won. (You can read about his four-year fight in an article published by Hearing Loss Magazine, or in a New York Times Op-Ed.)  But before he had any legal ground to stand on, he had to make an important admission to himself.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act is not this heroic shield that falls from the sky and protects each and every person who may or may not be disabled,” he said. “You have to be disabled.  That was very difficult for me to accept.”

Dan Carione does not look disabled. He was – and is – a powerful physical and intellectual presence. To use the word disabled about himself defied the visible reality.  “God bless Colleen [his attorney Colleen Meenan],” he said. “One of the first things she taught me was to use the word disabled.  It’s counter-intuitive.  Counter-intuitive, it hit me in the head like a dart because I didn’t want to use the word disabled.  But if you’re not disabled, the ADA can’t protect you.”

So if we want access equal to the access that hearing people have, we have to be open about our hearing loss. We have to acknowledge that it is a disability. That does not mean it’s disabling – it’s only disabling if we are denied the accommodations that make us equal.

For more information on living with hearing loss, see my books on Amazon.com.

13 thoughts on “Let’s Make Hearing Loss a Visible Disability

  1. Mea culpa. I am SSD – single sided deaf. Does this make me half deaf and what category is that? I guess I should claim a disability in hearing because, #1, without my Baha and my hearing ear covered I am stone deaf, and #2, even with my Baha I have trouble hearing in many venues including my own home. That’s a harsh reality for me to face. Why? Because I don’t “look” deaf or hard of hearing – unless you spot my Baha clinging to the side of my head and I don’t “feel” disabled. On top of that I feel a little guilty claiming I’m disabled because of societal influence that only visible disabilities count. Thank you Officer Carione for speaking out and Katherine Bouton for bringing his victory to light.

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  2. I am so glad you wrote this article! I’ve been fighting to educate my community and elected officials on the importance of accommodations for the Hard of Hearing. What I‘ve learned on my own journey is that we do not speak up for ourselves.

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  3. My God, but this needed to be said. Thank you. I have been saying the same thing but my audience is small compared to yours. Thank you Katherine. Deafness IS a disability. Until people with hearing loss come to this realization the problem will persist. Visibility is in speaking up and demanding access. But with a smile.

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  4. I had to admit to it 15 yrs ago when I became bilateral due to Menieres. No Hearing one side and then the second side decided it didn’t know if it was coming or going …. one moment I could hear ok, next moment it was either nothing or just loud distorted noises which accompanied all speech, including my own. I just didn’t know how to cope. After a week’s residential rehab course, I decided……….. I have to tell folk, because I don’t want them thinking one day I’m chatty, next day I ignore them. Best thing I ever did. I wear my badges declaring my hearing loss, do some deaf awareness and explain my problems.

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  5. I want to publicly thank Katherine and the HLAA for allowing me to speak about such an important issue. Since my Return to the NYPD I have committed myself to the role of Advocate for those with Hearing Disabilities. Being the first recognized full duty Police officer with in the NYPD with a Hearing Disability provides me with the ability to demonstrate each and every day that we ( the hearing disabled community) are not invisible, we are not incapable and we are not silent! Each day I put in my uniform and patrol the streets of Brooklyn is proof positive that we can be otherwise qualified to perform in the most demanding of work environments given fair access to reasonable accommodations. We are invisible no more!

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  6. This was a wonderful presentation filled with unfortunate truths that need to be addressed. Each and every one of us needs to be an advocate for ourselves and collectively have our voices heard. Deputy Inspector Dan Carione’s actions are a steppingstone opening the door for positive change in the future. If we do nothing, this will continue to happen. Thank you Mr. Carione, and thank you Katherine for spreading the word.

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