This radical ownership of my body helped me feel like a taboo-breaker — one with a sense of humor, nonetheless.
When I learned that I would need hearing aids at the age of 23, I scoffed.
Hearing aids? In my 20s? The phrase reminded me of my grandma’s elderly friend Bertha, who had tan plastic compartments affixed to the sides of her head.
Silly as it seems in retrospect, I worried that my hearing aids would fast-track me to old age. I figured people would see weird contraptions in my ears and instantly make assumptions. They would feel sorry for me or start shouting their words, enunciating each syllable as though I needed help comprehending their speech.
To assuage my concerns, my audiologist handed me a sample Oticon hearing aid and a hand mirror. I tucked my hair behind my right ear and angled the glass so that I could see the thin plastic tube wrapping around my pale cartilage.
“That is pretty subtle,” I acknowledged to her, making eye contact.
Then she turned the devices on. The experience felt like the auditory equivalent of wearing glasses after years of poor eyesight.
I was startled by the crispness of words. Sounds I hadn’t heard for years began to emerge: the light rustling of fabrics when I put on my coat, the muted thud of footsteps on a carpet.
To seal the deal, my audiologist showed me a promotional Bluetooth wand. The 3-inch remote control allowed me to stream Spotify directly through my hearing aids, which, I had to admit, was pretty cool.
I liked the idea of walking down the street with a secret. People might be able to notice my hearing aids, but the fact that I could pump music into my ears without wires? That knowledge was just for me.
I agreed to buy the Oticons.
From then on, I latched onto my new cyborg-like capabilities as a positive.
Listening to songs on my morning commute, I relished my unseen activity. Though I wore no headphones, the latest Børns beats were dominating my inner world.
Years before Apple AirPods and Bluetooth Beats made wireless listening seem commonplace, this made me feel like I had a superpower.
I started storing my hearing aids in my jewelry box, fitting them into place at the same time I fastened my dangling earrings.
With the addition of wireless streaming, my accessories felt like precious pieces of tech-enabled jewelry — similar to those “wearables” the startup world loves to talk about. I could take phone calls without touching my iPhone and stream TV audio without needing a remote control.
Soon enough I was cracking jokes about my new accessories, too. One Sunday morning, my boyfriend and I joined his parents at their apartment for brunch.
I entered the conversation with a caveat: ‘If I don’t answer, it’s not because I’m ignoring you. My hearing aid batteries are low.’
When his dad started to laugh, I embraced my hearing aids as comedic inspiration. This radical ownership of my body helped me feel like a taboo-breaker — one with a sense of humor, nonetheless.
The perks accumulated. Traveling for work, I relished muting my hearing aids before going to sleep on the plane. Whining toddlers became cherubs, and I snoozed without hearing the pilot announce our altitude. Walking past construction sites back on the ground, I could finally silence catcallers with the press of a button.
And on weekends, I always had the option of leaving my hearing aids in my jewelry box for a near-silent walk on the jarring streets of Manhattan.
Having come to terms with my sensory ‘deficiency,’ the inner noise of my own insecurities began to diminish, too.
As I became more content with seeing my hearing aids in the mirror, I also grew more aware of the ageism that had caused my self-consciousness in the first place.
When I thought again of Bertha, I couldn’t remember why I had been so resistant to the association. I’d adored Bertha, who always entertained me during mahjong nights with her handmade paper dolls, cut from napkins.
The more I considered her enormous hearing aids, the more her wearing them seemed like an act of valiance and extreme self-confidence — not something to ridicule by long-shot.
It wasn’t just ageism, either.
I didn’t yet know the word “ableism,” but I had unwittingly subscribed to a belief system in which able-bodied people were normal and disabled people were exceptions.
In order for a person to park in a handicap space or move around in a wheelchair, I assumed something must be wrong with their bodies. The fact that I needed hearing aids, I thought, proved something was wrong with me.
Was there, though? Honestly, I didn’t feel like anything was wrong with my body.
The root of my self-consciousness, I realized, wasn’t my hearing loss, it was the stigma I had associated with it.
I realized I’d been equating aging with embarrassment, and disability with shame.
Though I’ll never fully understand the complexities of navigating this world as a deaf person, my hearing loss revealed to me that disability is accompanied by a far wider range of emotion than stigma suggests.
I’ve cycled through self-acceptance, nonchalance, even pride.
Now I wear my hearing aids as an emblem of my ears’ maturity. And as a millennial finding my footing in New York, it’s a relief not to feel young and inexperienced at something.
Stephanie Newman is a Brooklyn-based writer covering books, culture, and social justice. You can read more of her work at stephanienewman.com.