I’m the perfect example of how mild-moderate hearing loss often gets overlooked. I spent most of my school years with a mild-moderate hearing loss. I brushed it aside as if it weren’t a big deal, as did everyone around me. Of my first 16 years of education, I wore hearing aids maybe five of those years for various reasons (expense, embarrassment, adjustment issues). Even though I felt I was missing out, I repressed those emotions for many years. This continued into the workforce and social situations. Only later did I realize what a big deal this was.
But even then, I learned that it was not enough to just mention I couldn’t hear. I became completely fed up and realized that I must fend for myself. It took 30 years of my life to get to this point. Strong advocacy skills are necessary for those with hearing loss to get by, let alone thrive. It makes me wonder: Why isn’t the mainstream education system doing more to set this example for us?
On average, children with milder hearing loss wear their hearing aids less often because they believe they can “get by” without. And when a child struggles to hear in the classroom, it takes more energy to do so. This makes it easier to lose focus. And when you lose focus, you hear even less. It’s a downward spiral of disaster, which can be misdiagnosed as behavioral or learning issues.
When you have mild-moderate hearing loss, you aren’t always aware of how much information you are missing in the classroom. For me personally, it is hard to analyze exactly how much I have really missed. I just know that sometimes I heard things and sometimes I didn’t. It is hard to pinpoint the specifics of information missed with a mild-moderate hearing loss because it’s not always a whole word you are missing–it’s syllables and frequencies within that word. I always seemed to learn a little slower than my classmates, as I tended to zone out often. Because of this, I had in the back of my mind the possibility that I had a learning disability. Since I wasn’t gathering all of the information from the classroom, I was often confused about what was discussed in class and would ask my dad for help with homework after I arrived home.
“When you have mild-moderate hearing loss, you aren’t always aware of how much information you are missing in the classroom.”
There are many things I should have learned that I still do not know today. I was never a smart student, but I always made a point to do my homework and was therefore able to make it through. People always told me I was spacey, sort of in my own world. Lately, I have been reading scholarly articles and connecting with other hard of hearing people. I’m learning that many others with hearing loss also have similar experiences.
Because I was hard of hearing, I was often placed in the front row of the classroom. This was the only accommodation I was ever offered. While this did help, I still had a hard time fully grasping the material. Of course, it is every hard of hearing person’s worst nightmare when the teacher talks while facing the board. I absolutely could not hear when a student in the classroom had something to say, as the voices would come from behind me.
A study published in Communications Disorders Quarterly in 2005 surveyed teachers regarding minimal hearing loss issues in the classroom. More than 55 percent of them reported professional experience with such students. “It was disturbing to find that more teachers (16; 35.6 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that preferential seating alone was all that was needed for these students,” the researchers wrote. An additional 15 teachers (33.3 percent) had no opinion on this issue.” C.J. Dalton, commenting on their work in the Canadian Journal of Education in 2013, observed, “Overall, this study revealed how unaware teachers can be about the challenges of this disability.”
When you are sitting in the front row of a classroom, it is challenging to make friends with classmates. Of course, classmates whisper and chat during class sometimes, and I was left out of this altogether. Although I always had a group of friends throughout school, I never really felt closely connected. Instead, I always felt slightly out of place. I was bashful and went along with my peers. The thing is, is I actually wanted to feel connected to people. I was the only person my age with hearing aids. Because I connected hearing loss with old age, I stopped wearing my hearing aids in the start of fifth grade. I didn’t connect all the pieces of how much this would hurt me socially and academically. I was mostly embarrassed and ashamed of being different.
In high school, I became rebellious. I did not wear hearing aids, nor did I inform any of the teachers of my hearing loss. I sat towards the back and often slept in class or brought magazines to fill my time. The friends I tended to make were more loudly spoken, who weren’t necessarily the connections I would have made if I had perfect hearing. I preferred one-on-one settings. Because of the individuals I surrounded myself with, I often found myself in group settings like parties. I drank a lot of alcohol as a coping mechanism. This made me appear happy socially, but inside I felt like my soul was dying.
I didn’t try hearing aids again until my first year in college. My first semester, I was in a class that was often split into groups. It became obvious how much I was unable to hear. The last thing I wanted was my hearing loss being known to others, I was so ashamed of it. At this point I had still never met another hard of hearing person my age. The teacher gave us tasks and then split us up into groups every single class period. As soon as I was in my group, I never knew what was going on. This meant there was no way I could pretend that I understood. I had so many embarrassing moments that I decided to meet with the teacher and told her I was having a hard time hearing. The next class, she said loudly, “Can everyone hear me?” and then went back to her normal tone of voice, which I was unable to hear.
I was embarrassed about my hearing loss and had zero advocacy skills back then. I had no idea that something called a “Disability Office” existed and that I had rights to equal access because of the ADA. It took a lot of guts to speak up about my hearing loss. I remember feeling crushed and knew I had to do something to avoid it being known by my peers that I was constantly missing out on what was happening.
I realized I needed hearing aids and fast. One place could get them to me in two weeks, which meant only two more weeks of embarrassment in this class. I took out a $5,000 loan, which I spent more than five years paying off. However, I never realized I needed to adjust to the hearing aids. I was picking up small distractions and still had a hard time hearing the teacher. This made me assume I had a brain processing issue. I wore them for a short period and then stopped again. There were many classes I attended where I just sort of read the slides and what was on the board, not really understanding the material being spoken.
I know that my experience in school is not unique. According to Dalton, hearing loss is a communication disability that can impact language development, academic performance, and social-emotional quality of life. Because these students’ speech is mostly understood, teachers can easily overlook their challenges in gaining full inclusion in their classrooms. The classroom is a critical time for kids developing skills. Because of this, I feel that this is one of the most important places for everyone to have equal access. Thus, I propose the following:
Dalton, C. J. (2011). Social-emotional Challenges Experienced by Students Who Function with Mild and Moderate Hearing Loss in Educational Settings. Exceptionality Education International, 21(1), 28-45.
Dalton, C. J. (2013). Lessons for Inclusion: Classroom Experiences of Students with Mild and Moderate Hearing Loss. Canadian Journal of Education.
Richburg, C. M., & Goldberg, L. R. (2005). Teachers’ Perceptions About Minimal Hearing Loss. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 27(1), 4-19.
What would you add to the Call to Action?