I’ve had hearing aids in both of my ears since I was three years old as a result of a moderate-to-severe hearing loss. Growing up, I never let my lack of hearing hold me back or thought of it as a limiting factor. Now that I’m an adult (technically), I thought it’d be nice to look back and try to figure out what helped me make it through. Many kids and their parents struggle with the challenges of growing up hard of hearing, so I took a page from my hero David Letterman and made this little list of the top ten tips I would give kids and their parents today.
Obviously everybody’s experience is unique. Nobody is rocking the insanely large FM system I had strapped to me when I was a kid. However, the experience of struggling to communicate can be universal, and my hope is that maybe some of these lessons might make somebody else’s road a bit easier. Heck, maybe people will start looking at it as a gift rather than a disability. Which brings me to number one…
1. Think of it as an opportunity.
This sounds weird, because it goes against everything you’ve might have heard about living with disabilities. And it’s true, being hard of hearing can be, well, hard. However, there’s an upside, and it can be huge.
First off, it instantly sets you apart. I’ve gotten jobs before just because my interviewers were endlessly fascinated with the watch that controls my hearing aids. Be outgoing and frank about your disability, and people will love you for it.
Second, it can actually open doors for you in school. I always requested (and got) the best teacher in my grade, and in high school and college, always had priority in registration. This advantage alone can be life-changing.
Third, you can shut off the world and have some peace and quiet. You’ll realize a funny thing once you start telling people you’re hard of hearing, you’ll learn some will actually be jealous of you. Think about it, you have a volume switch in your ear! Most people can’t turn the volume down on life without earplugs. It’s something to smile about next time you’re on a bus next to a crying toddler.
2. Bring hearing aid batteries everywhere.
Those suckers have a tendency to always die at the worst times and places. Personally, I know mine will always die the second I sit down in a movie theater. People smarter than me always change them on a designated time each week so they’re never caught off guard, but I lack the discipline for that. So my solution? Just make sure you have a pack everywhere you go.
If you’re female, just put a pack in your purse and you’re good. Guys, you’re going to need to be a bit more creative. It helped that during school I always had my backpack, so that was where I normally kept mine. However, if you’re just out with friends or family, make sure to tuck a pack into your pocket or jacket if you can.
3. Use your FM system if you have one.
I’m always surprised by how few people take advantage of FM systems. You get a direct line to the teacher without any background noise or distractions. Essentially, you get to hear better than a hearing person! As a bonus, you can ever hear the teacher when they go out into the hall (although make sure they don’t go to the bathroom with it on…)
So why do people not use them? Some people are off the hook because they don’t have BTE (behind the ear hearing aids) or have other classroom solutions arranged. However, for most it’s almost always because they’re too shy to use an FM system. They don’t want to get up in front of the class and ask the teacher to wear the microphone, and they don’t want to raise their hand when the teacher inevitably drops it on the ground. But it’s really not that bad asking the teacher to wear it. After the first week, it’s second nature and it becomes invisible to everybody in the classroom within days.
4. Build your support team
I got through school with the help of several wonderful human beings who were there for me from year one. Get close with a good audiologist, preferably one that deals primarily with children. They’ll be your guide through the years, and a place you can always return to for answers to your questions.
At school, get to know those in charge of taking care of students with disabilities and work with them to get the best assistance for you or your child. I had a wonderful note-taker who not only took brilliant notes, but became a mentor, confidant and tutor as well.
Take care of them, and they will take care of you. Often you will have to initiate contact with them and let them know you’re serious about your future, but once you do, you have friends for life.
5. Maintain your hearing aids
This is obvious, but you really need to stay on top of maintaining your hearing aids. Get new earmolds before you outgrow your old ones, otherwise they can become excruciating to wear. Clean up wax on a daily basis. Try to keep water and sweat from flooding your aids. Most importantly, send your hearing aids in for a yearly checkup. You’ll be shocked how much better they work when they’ve been professionally cleaned and repaired. It often sounds like a whole new hearing aid!
6. Don’t compromise on your goals
You might have somebody tell you you can’t do something because you’re hard of hearing. Ignore them. They’re idiots. I know hard of hearing kids who’ve done amazing things while still in school including writing for a professional sports team, winning soccer championships, and competing in nationwide acting competitions. There is absolutely nothing you can’t do because of your hearing loss. End of story.
7. Put yourself out there
This is the hardest thing to do on the list here. When it comes down to it, hearing loss is essentially a communication disorder. Simple conversation for a hard of hearing person can be difficult and frustrating, so much so that they may decide to opt out of conversation altogether. As a result, many hard of hearing children become introverted and withdraw from the social circles around them.
Kids, this is up to you. All I can say is keep at it, it’ll get easier as time goes on. Having friends and people around you who care about you is one of the best things about life, so don’t let a little difficulty hearing somebody keep you from that. You’ll be surprised about just how much your friends will look after you and help you hear others around you.
In high school, I often found myself at places like dances and cafeterias where it was next to impossible to hear. This is where my friends came through for me, making sure I could keep up with conversations and helping me understand new people. Heck, some even spoke to me in sign language.
So I can’t say it enough. Put yourself out there. Talk, listen, and build your network of friends.
8. Pick up sign language if you can
If you’re reading this, you’re likely a hearing parent or a hard of hearing kid that’s not from a Deaf family. There are probably very few people around you know sign language or are culturally Deaf. However, that shouldn’t keep you from picking up a little sign language.
I’m not saying drop everything and head off to a Deaf boarding school, but learn from those who live in a world with no sound at all. Sign language is a fun and very effective form of communication that has many advantages over speech. Learning sign language together can be a good way for a family to come together and believe me, if you’re hard of hearing, people are going to ask if you can sign. The best answer is yes.
I actually didn’t learn sign language until I was in high school, but I highly recommend learning it as early as possible. The key is having people around you can sign to on a regular basis to keep your skills fresh, so that’s why I recommend it as a family activity rather than solo.
And you know what? Make friends with some Deaf people if you get a chance. Deaf culture is a great place to learn a lot about how to cope with your hearing loss and be accepted as who you are.
9. Get a deaf alarm
Sound isn’t going to cut it. Unless you have the radio set on static at full volume (which I did for many years), normal alarm clocks are not going to get you up in the morning. I recommend alarm clocks made for the Deaf that shake your entire bed with a vibrator that goes under the mattress. It’s going to be a lot harder to sleep through your own personal earthquake and it won’t wake everybody else up in the house.
10. Tell people!
Tell people you’re hard of hearing! Most of the time, people simply don’t know. People are so wrapped up in their own worlds that they’re not going to even notice those things in your ear, so let them know. It can be sort of awkward at times, but it’s certainly less awkward than somebody thinking you’re ignoring them because they said hi to you and you didn’t respond.
I have long hair (for a guy) and am so used to people knowing I often forget to tell new acquaintances that I am hard of hearing. But whenever I do, people are always positive and kind about it. So don’t be scared! Be proud of who you are!