Hearing Aids and Social Stigma

The most interesting thing happening in hearing aid technology is not found in the tiny, expensive, invisible devices, but in the erosion of social stigma over visible assistive technology. Because big headphones with computers inside to manage sound are easier, and cheaper, to build.

David Owen, writing for The New Yorker, offered a long and interesting report on advances in tiny, powerful, hearing aids. It’s a good piece, but I think it buried the most interesting thing at the end. He notes that the big problem with hearing aids, from a tech standpoint, is making them tiny and invisible, because people are ashamed of losing their hearing. This is a social problem, then, not a technical one. Owen writes, with my emphasis:

In 2013, Charlie Rose devoted a program to hearing loss, and during the broadcast two of the participants—Eric Kandel, a scientist who won a Nobel Prize in 2000, and Rose himself—were wearing hearing aids. (David Corey, the Harvard Medical School professor I met with, appeared on the program as well, and got a good look.) Yet neither man mentioned that fact, even though the program lasted nearly an hour and hearing aids were a major topic of discussion. The wearing of hearing aids has long been stigmatized in a way that the wearing of eyeglasses has not, and, as a consequence, hearing-aid manufacturers have invested heavily in inconspicuousness—one of several reasons that hearing aids like Halo and SoundLens sell for more than three thousand dollars each.

Stigma leads to cost.

Attitudes about visibility may be changing, though, now that people of all ages walk around with electronic gadgets sticking out of their ears. Hearing-aid companies increasingly compete with manufacturers of over-the-counter devices known as “personal sound-amplification products.” The cheapest psaps, some of which sell for less than fifty dollars, are notoriously junky and may even exacerbate hearing loss by indiscriminately amplifying harmful sounds. But some companies make user-adjustable Bluetooth devices that have received favorable reviews from technology critics and people with mild hearing problems.

Owen goes to lunch with someone from Bose who makes expensive, visible, devices called “Hearphones.”

I put them on. “One of the things you get really good at when demonstrating this device is talking without saying much,” Franck said, then chatted away. I used a smartphone app to raise and lower background sound levels. I could also focus specifically on Franck’s voice or widen the range to include, first, the tables on either side of ours, then some chefs and waiters moving around in the kitchen, behind me. If my cell phone had rung, directional microphones inside the earpieces would have aimed themselves toward my mouth when I answered it. Once I’d found a sound level I liked, I used a slider in the app to fine-tune the pitch. I was able to play music in the background as we conversed—with far better fidelity than is possible with even the most expensive hearing aids—and I could raise and lower its volume independently from everything else.

Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, likes to say – “We are all cyborgs.” As technology advances, we interface our lives more and more inextricably with it. It’s easy to imagine a world in which stigma against hearing loss eases and people who wish to hear aurally just wear headphones. It’s no more preposterous than a world in which people wear hats (which are also a form of assistive technology, cause the sun burns).

Leave a Reply