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(dis)ABLED BEAUTY: The Evolution of Beauty, Disability and Ability

A new art exhibition at Kent State University in Ohio, USA is celebrating  highly designed assistive devices, adaptive devices, and apparel for those living with disabilities. Hearing Like Me blogger, Angie Aspinall asks the curators, Audiologist, Stacey Lim and fashion expert, Tameka Ellington about their inspiration for the exhibition and the process of pulling it all together.

Angie: When did you first have the idea of putting together an exhibition about assistive devices and their relation to beauty?

Stacey: Tameka and I have done research projects together, focusing on teen perception of their own hearing loss and hearing devices in 2012. The teens gave us a range of responses and design ideas, and that was only the first step in our exhibition. We then went to a conference on fashion and health, where we listened to a presentation about prosthetic limbs that have been designed in a fashionable way. That really inspired us to take a look even further into what is out there for people with disabilities.

Angie: Do you use any assistive devices yourselves and if so, which helps you the most?

Tameka: No, I don’t. However, Stacey wears a hearing aid and cochlear implant. She has been instrumental in my understanding of what hearing loss is and how to live with it. Once you know and are close to someone who has a ‘disability’, your total perspective changes. She has changed my life!

Stacey: I have had a profound hearing loss in both ears since birth and I wear both a hearing aid and a cochlear implant. I also have a remote microphone system that I use with both my cochlear implant and hearing aid in different work situations if needed. I would say my hearing aid and cochlear implant help me the most, because I without them, I wouldn’t have developed spoken language the way I did, and I can also enjoy the sounds that surround me.

Angie: With the Paralympics now in full swing, there’s much talk in the media about Paralympians being ‘The Superhumans’: which of the devices in your show do you feel makes the user ‘superhuman’?

Tameka: Well, we must first define ‘superhuman’. In my mind, being superhuman means that you can do things no one else can do. You have ‘powers’ no one else has. I believe that to some degree, all of the items in the show provide some form of superhuman capabilities to their wearers – maybe just at different levels. An Advanced Bionics Neptune Cochlear Implant can give ‘superhuman’ power to hear underwater! And, we all know what the Invacare racing wheelchair can do! Just look at the athletes on the track. If that’s not superhuman, I don’t know what is.

Stacey: I think of ‘superhuman’ as being able to have a skill or ability to do something. All the items in our exhibition give people with disabilities the potential to do something, like hear or participate in sports, or to be just as fashionable as someone else who is able-bodied.  For example, i-Limb prosthetic hand allows the wearer to grasp different items and to have more fine motor skills. This is quite an amazing piece of bionic technology—it consists of motorized digits and can bend at the joints of the fingers. Cochlear implant devices transform sound into electrical impulses that can be processed by the wearer’s brain.

Angie: In online discussion groups, there is often debate about the desirability for hearing aids and other assistive devices for people with hearing loss to be ‘invisible’ versus being ‘visible’. Do you have a view on this?

Stacey: As a person with hearing loss, it is frustrating to me that hearing aids are seen in such a negative light. Eyeglasses have become a fashion accessory, and I wish hearing aids would be seen the same way. I think the more we can show off our hearing devices in a positive way, it can be a good thing. I think the more open and accepting we are of hearing loss and hearing aids, both as consumers and as people who might have normal hearing but who have friends or family with hearing loss, the more confidence people will have to wear their hearing devices. I believe the more open people are about hearing loss, it will allow people to communicate better with each other and be more supportive. Hearing loss is part of our lives, and I think we should embrace it and not be afraid to show off our hearing aids! Personally, I was very excited when I was finally able to get hearing aids in my favorite color as an adult, since hearing aid colors were quite limited when I was a child.

 

Tameka: Why hide? Being ‘invisible’ means people can’t see the real you. Well, you can only get the real me! Desiring to be invisible means you’ve got something to hide. Hearing loss is not a thing to hide. We have a variety of beautifully interesting hearing devices in our show which prove that.

Angie: Since the launch of the exhibition, what feedback have you had from visitors about the devices in the exhibition and about how the exhibition is tackling the stigma associated with assistive devices?

Stacey: We’ve had amazing feedback. I’ve had so many people excited about the fun designer ear molds we have in our exhibition. From those, I’ve been getting responses asking where people can get colored hearing aids and ear molds. I know people have commented on the various items in the exhibition and have learned about how clothing can be adapted for different bodies and needs. I think people have learned how important fashion design can be to those who have disabilities!

TE: The best comments we have gotten so far have been those that stated they had no idea fashion was involved with making assistive devices. People have said the show is ‘creative’, ‘educational’ and ‘brilliant’.

 

Angie: You come from very diverse work backgrounds. How did the two of you come to be working together on this project?

Stacey: We met in statistics class as PhD students at Kent State University. We became good friends during our respective PhD programs and we always wanted to collaborate on a project, and our research project on teens with hearing loss was only the first step. As different as our fields are, I think understanding fashionability is important in the context of disability, in that it can help remove some of those negative stigmas surrounding disabilities. I don’t think we’ll stop collaborating on various projects during our careers, and I’m glad that we met and have remained really good friends all these years!

Tameka: Yes, we met in graduate school and remained friends. And now, I am privileged to call Stacey my research partner too.

Our thanks to co-curators Tameka Ellington, PhD and Stacey Lim, Au.D., PhD for taking part in this interview. Learn more about the project: http://www.kent.edu/museum/event/disabled-beauty 

What are your thought on the role of fashion in the design of hearing aids and CIs?

Angie Aspinall
Angie Aspinall
Phonak hEARo, Angie is a freelance journalist, copywriter, website designer and social media consultant. (www.aspinallink.co.uk) She lives in Scotland with her husband Richard, and their Westie, Tilly. Angie was diagnosed with Otosclerosis in her right ear at the age of 30. In 2011, she suffered sudden profound hearing loss in her left ear. She now uses a Phonak CROS II with a Phonak Audéo V hearing aid. You can follow Angie's international discussion group #HearingLossHour on Twitter @hearinglosshour.