When did it become socially acceptable to make hearing loss a punch line?

By Dr. Anne Simon

September 30, 2016

I remember a movie from some years ago. There was a character depiction in the movie that troubled me.

This character, Peter, was an older gentleman, perhaps in his mid-50s. By the ear trumpet Peter held up to his ear, and how he would misconstrue statements made by, Gabriel, the young man courting his daughter; the viewer was meant to gather that he had hearing loss.

Gabriel: “I’m here to call on Anne.”

Peter: “Well, of course you dress like a man.”

The viewer was left confused by a later scene in which Peter is having a quiet conversation with one of the main characters of the film. No ear trumpet. No misunderstood language.

Levity aside, I can’t help but think of the myriad other health conditions, or other socially-sensitive stereotypes that might have replaced hearing loss that would have resulted in outrage.

I feel the hurt and angst more acutely than most given my career helping people with hearing loss.

Example: Patient in her early 40s attends a lecture, asks a fellow attendee to switch seats so that she can hear the speaker better. He says, with a smirk on his face, “What?”

Example: Patient in his 30s has a customer service job. While waiting on a customer, boss (Yes, I said “Boss”) comes up behind him and says to customers, “You’ll have to speak louder, he’s deaf.”

Example: Patient works in a large office space separated only by cubicles. Lots of ambient noise. Demeaning co-workers say something to her from behind that she doesn’t respond to because she can’t hear them. Group of co-workers erupt in laughter. Patient hears laughter and turns around to realize she is the butt of their joke.

Just insert race, or lifestyle choice, or physical disability, or any number of other characteristics and you can imagine just how fast this situation would backfire on the jokester.

Hearing loss is a serious, significant health condition. So, what does respect for hearing loss look like? How can we get these jokesters to respect hearing loss? Unfortunately, you cannot change the heart of another. But, you can change you. And how you outwardly wear your hearing loss.

We marvel at how someone born without limbs makes do, or how mobile a paraplegic can be. A short friend calls herself, “fun-sized.” A friend who wears glasses responds to someone who said he looked better without them with, “So do you.” The common denominator is how each one carries themselves and their particular circumstances.

It should be no different for someone with hearing loss. Ultimately, the change starts with you. Take charge of your situation.

Keywords: hearing loss
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