If you’re active on social media, you probably have a list of hashtags you use when sharing photos about hearing loss. #HearingLoss, of course, #LifeIsOn – the official Phonak hashtag – and others such as #hardofhearing #deafkidsrock and #hearingaids. One hashtag campaign, however, recently gained international attention, with the important message: #ShowYourAids.
The #ShowYourAids social media campaign exploded this summer thanks to one young woman, Emma Rudkin, who knows from experience how tough it can be to wear hearing aids proudly.
Emma, a 19-year-old Texas native and this year’s Miss San Antonio, started the social media movement and non-profit, Aid The Silent, to raise awareness and support for the deaf community.
I talked with her about the #ShowYourAids movement and how she gained the courage to show off her Phonak hearing aids.
Jill: Can you tell us about your hearing loss?
Emma: (When I was young) I became very sick with a high fever associated with an infection and lost the majority of my hearing. There were many signs of hearing loss, but my parents had never been around anyone deaf or hard-of-hearing and did not connect the dots until after I was diagnosed at three years old. There were signs, such as in ballet, I would dance in a corner by myself. I was so behind in speech and in reading comprehension. Instead of saying “puppy dogs,” I would say things like “happy dogs.” Finally, a teacher suggested a hearing test and everything clicked. My mother describes the whole experience “out-of-body” because there were no resources or deaf communities in our hometown. She and my dad were on their own.
A year later, after my diagnosis, my hearing dropped suddenly and significantly to a profound level. Doctors stated that I would go completely deaf, and that I needed to go to a deaf school and learn sign language, that I would never function “normally” in the hearing world. My parents did not think that was the plan for me and sought a very different route, pretty much the very opposite of what doctors told them to do. I was immediately placed in intensive speech, fitted for hearing aids, and enrolled in the most difficult private school in our area.
Honestly, I did not know much of the deaf culture growing up. I only knew one other girl in our small town with hearing loss and she wore hearing aids and was an oralist as well. As I grew older, I became legally classified as “deaf” and that opened my eyes to being a part of much larger community. It was never an option in my household to use my deafness as any sort of crutch. If I had a really hard day of being left out or feeling alone, my mama would always say, “Today, you are allowed one pity party, but tomorrow you are going to pick yourself up and carry on.” Hearing loss has made me who I am but does not define me, so I never looked at the world as “hearing” but as a place full of the same opportunity and life to live as everybody else.
When I was a freshman in high school, the language requirement was to take Spanish. It took me 10 years to properly speak the English language! It was devastating and an eye-opening year of growth for me. The teacher did not understand the profoundness of my hearing loss and would play audiotapes in Spanish and then expect me to repeat it. I spent the year embarrassed and humiliated because of the many times I was called to stand up and speak the language I could not hear in front of my classmates. On one test in particular, I completely bombed the oral part of the exam and with tears streaming down my face, explained to her how horribly unfair this was, she looked at me and said, “I thought you wouldn’t want to be labeled as different.” That was the final straw on how I was going to allow myself to be treated. I needed some modifications to be successful, but that did not mean my brain did not work. When people talk to me as if I am dumb or incapable of speaking for myself, I change the situation by saying, “My ears don’t work, but my brain works just fine.” An accommodation in these settings is not being treated different or getting “special treatment.”
At the end of year, I went before the administration and wrote a formal petition for ASL to be taught for any deaf and hard-of-hearing student that would come through the school. The following year, my foreign language was sign language through an online college and that is where I learned of the deaf culture. Learning of my background and heritage as a deaf person was true freedom. I am part of the “hearing world” but legally deaf. I know my purpose is to bridge the two worlds together; to close the gap.
Jill: It’s amazing how a little education can really change how people perceive a person with hearing loss. Sometimes even looking at a person with hearing aids can cause others anxiety, and give them the feeling of not knowing how to talk to that person. Have you experienced this? How has your relationship with hearing aids changed over the years?
Emma: When I was young, I did not want to wear hearing aids and would always take them out. I know my parents talk about those early days as a struggle to get me to keep them in. It soon became a part of my everyday life; it became a part of my normal morning routine.
Back then, I did not know that I was different from everyone else, but as I grew older, the imperfections started to stand out and it started to be pointed out by those around me. One of the major sources of insecurity in my life growing up were my hearing aids. They were the only visible signs of my deafness and hidden disability that people could see, and it what separated me from my peers.
The wind blowing was the bane of my existence in middle school because that meant people could catch a glimpse of my aids for themselves. I almost did not try out for the cheer team because of having to wear my hair up. I would always wear my hair straight down by my face so no one could make little comments and point it out. It was a debilitating period of life for me.
The relationship with hearing aids changed because of a life-changing experience when I was sixteen-years-old, at a Young Life camp. I learned who I really was and that my deafness was the story to proclaim freedom for others. The very first thing I did after coming home was wear my hair up, completely exposed and vulnerable for all to see. My hearing aids have become my badge of honor to tell others what I’ve been through and what hearing loss is about. I now educate others instead of shutting down. Hurtful comments come because people are ignorant and naïve, so I take the opportunity to correct that. I’ve discovered when I am comfortable and open about it, I invite others to be as well.
After discovering this great news, I went on to learn three instruments, star in plays, cheered seven years and became cheer captain (of the very team I almost didn’t try out for) for three years, competed in the Miss America circuit and absolutely just feel complete freedom in who I am.
Jill: That’s so great that you were able to have that “lightbulb moment” where you realized you were limitless in the things you could accomplish with hearing loss. What advice can you give others your age that could help them also reach that point?
Emma: If you have hearing aids or even a cochlear, you are wearing your story. People can be inconsiderate and make comments, but it is only because they don’t understand or they will choose not to. However, the choice is yours whether or not to take that as your identity. Through grace and love, you can educate and correct mistreatment. Always be ready to forgive those who hurt you, because that frees you from resentment and the hold that person has on you. This is your platform in life to change the world. It is the most beautiful thing about you and it does not define you but has made you who you are.
Jill: You’ve gained a lot of traction with the #ShowYourAids campaign. What are you hoping to accomplish with the social campaign?
Emma: I think I look at some of the heartbreaking moments of people’s curiosity and remember the painfulness of not liking who I was. I want the deaf and hard-of-hearing to know they are beautiful and loved. The hope is a sense of community across the world, that you are not alone. I know my parents felt so alone in those early days and I never want another young parent to ever feel that way about their child’s hearing loss. This movement changed me; I look at my own hearing loss differently, I wear my hair up a little more, I post “ear selfies” more, I invite curious stares. When people originally start movements like this, the intention is to change the world but it ends up changing the one who started it as well.
Jill: What have you learned about the deaf/hard of hearing community through your efforts promoting Aid the Silent and #ShowYourAids on social media?
Emma: It is an extremely loving community; no one is alone once you are open to it. It is a family of people who understand each other. The only thing I have found tragic is that there is a division between oralists and signers (non-verbal). I don’t understand that at all. It is sad because both groups need to support each other. We are all battling the exact same story. It just means that both have found what works best for them – with technology or without, speech or signing – it is up to individual, so let’s not judge each other.
Jill: We see that a lot too. There are wonderful movements advocating both the “Deaf” and “deaf” communities. It can be a tough decision, especially for parents, to choose which path to go after the hearing loss diagnosis. The most important thing is for them to have access to both options.
Outside of these communities, what do you think are some misconceptions other young people have about the deaf/hard of hearing people or hearing aids?
Emma: What I have experienced the most is people yelling and over enunciating at me, which only makes it harder to communicate. I always tell people to talk to me like anybody else because the super exaggerated talking makes me feel dumb or that I am not capable of carrying a conversation. As long as the person speaking with me is facing me and talking at a normal pace and volume, we are going to be fast friends. Also there is a misconception that the deaf require special treatment. The only thing I need is for someone to communicate well with me and I can do the rest. The most hurtful misconception is when people think I cannot talk or think for myself, and talk to me through my friend or family, thinking they will translate the conversation back to me.
I used believe every ounce of being “disabled,” but now I know my lacking in hearing is my story to proclaim freedom against that label for others. What was seen as a “disability” in my life has become my greatest ability. I know that most people don’t know about deafness and are curious to know more. Now I see people’s questions and curiosity as an opportunity to share my story and truth over the situation. I have forgiven the people of the past and the ones that will come in my future because I was first forgiven.
Jill: At Phonak, we are committed to fighting the stigma attached to hearing loss, and making hearing aids as simple and routine as eyeglasses or contact lenses. Being open about hearing loss and being proud about showing off your hearing aids (like #ShowYourAids has promoted) will help break down the stigmas. What else do you think needs to be done to change the stigma of hearing loss?
Emma: Yes, I always say that hearing aids are no different than glasses. I have both! I can’t see very well or hear very well but I get lots of cool accessories and technology because of that! I think the stigma starts with us; we can change it if we are open with it!
So many people have never been around someone deaf or hard-of-hearing, so the change starts with us to educate and be real with others. I think sensitivity training for companies is a great idea. Some of my most embarrassing moments have been when I’ve encountered really insensitive and rude people on airplanes, restaurants or in big chain stores.
The world needs more people stepping forward with positive movements like #ShowYourAids and getting out of our bubbles to truly know and interact with people.