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.
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.