Glasses Are Cool, Why Aren't Hearing Aids?
But first, I need to talk about Elton John’s glasses. It was my first concert. Philadelphia Spectrum, 1972. Elton opened up with “Tiny Dancer” on solo piano. Later, during “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself,” a character named Legs Larry Smith came out and tap danced.
But none of that is what I remember best. What has stayed with me all these years has been those stylish glasses. Spotlights flooding the stage twinkled off his rims.
Back then, I wore glasses, too. Until that moment, I had never thought of them as a fashion statement. I just thought of them as a way of existing in the world.
But of course glasses were, and are, a fashion statement. Eyewear practically defines certain people’s style. Teddy Roosevelt and his pince-nez. Iris Apfel and her signature circular specs. Mr. Peanut, rocking a monocle. In my 20s I knew a girl with perfect eyesight who even had a pair of clear glasses designed for her. “So that I look hot,” she explained, “when I take them off.”
Why, I wonder, is it that devices to keep you from being blind are celebrated as fashion, but devices to keep you from being deaf are embarrassing and uncool? Why is it that the biggest compliment someone can give you about your hearing aids is “I can hardly see them”?
Hearing loss is endemic, and not just for older people. Almost one in four Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 who think they have good hearing actually have some hearing impairment. Among those in their 50s, 4.5 million people have some hearing loss. How many wear devices that would enable them to better hear the world? Less than 5 percent.
Wearing hearing aids can change your life in an instant — not to mention that of the people you love, whose actual voices you may have been unable to hear. But we don’t get help. Because coverage by insurance carriers is inconsistent. Because we don’t know where or how to get our hearing tested. Because we’re afraid of what others might think. Because hearing loss is uncool.
This needs to change. Start with insurance: Hearing aids can be expensive, but employers need to know that people who can’t hear can’t do their jobs well. Education matters, too: People who thought it was dumb for Donald Trump to look directly at the sun during the solar eclipse might think nothing of slapping on a pair of headphones and cranking their music to 11.
The first thing you can do is to get your hearing tested; this is helpful even if you don’t think you have hearing loss, so that you have a baseline reference. There are several FREE hearing screenings available through hearing providers and on the web. Try and choose a reputable hearing provider. A hearing test should be conducted in a quiet room and in sound proof booth.
About 90 percent of hearing loss is “sensorineural,” usually caused by damage to hair cells in the inner ear. Sometimes it’s the result of exposure to loud sounds (like concerts at the Spectrum). That’s the kind of hearing loss I have; my inability to hear high-pitched sounds means that understanding a conversation in a crowded restaurant can be a challenge.
New technology enables wearers to focus their hearing on the person in front of them while canceling out all sound behind. You can control just how much of the world you want to amplify or cancel out by using a free app on your mobile device. And it looks good — I recently wore such a device at a party where, for the first time in years, I heard everything that everyone was saying. It completely changed the way I experienced the world.
When I first learned that I had serious hearing loss (after a lifetime of playing in super-loud bands), I called my wife on the phone, and as I told her of my diagnosis I started to cry. “I’m so sorry you have to be married to someone like me,” I sobbed.
My wife, a tolerant woman by any measure, laughed. “You really think I’d leave you because you have hearing aids?” she said.
Well, yeah, I sort of did. Because I thought it would make me seem old and undesirable. Because somehow I’d forgotten that the world has long been full of people just like me.
I always loved that song that Elton opened with at the Spectrum. I have a friend who loves it, too, although once, when we heard it come on the radio, she asked me: “Hey wait. Why is he singing, ‘Hold me closer, Tony Danza?’ ”
“It’s ‘Tiny Dancer,’ ” I explained. “Not Tony Danza. Tiny Dancer.”
“Duh, Jenny, like — I know, ” she said. “Did you really think I was deaf?”
It was a joke, of course, and she laughed. As if the whole idea was funny, as if our hearing was a gift we could never lose.
What are your thoughts?