It’s a Vanity Thing: Why I Care That My Hearing Aids Are ‘Invisible’

It’s been 8 months since I picked up my first pair of hearing aids from the audiologist’s office. Of course, as with many other men in middle age, my hearing had been on the decline for several years prior to the Big Day. I just suffered silently during those earlier years as my hearing declined — frankly, in the name of vanity (with plenty of denial thrown in). My wife and daughters suffered not so silently: “When are you going to get your ears checked? That’s way overdue!”

It really was a significant day in my life. I can best describe adding hearing aids to my daily personal accessories for the first time as similar to the day at 15 years old when I donned my first pair of prescription eyeglasses. Walking into my high school the next day, I expected every student and teacher in the building to gawk at me. … What a surprise when hardly anyone paid any notice. Even my friends barely joked about my change in appearance. (I wear eyeglasses to this day.)

Steve's invisible hearing aid

When I first wore my behind-the-ear Phonak Audéo Q‘s, as tiny as they are, I still half expected that students and colleagues (I was a digital-media program director and instructor at a university at the time) would notice the tiny silver wires snaking into my ears. It’s a legitimate concern, isn’t it? If you’re mostly around a bunch of people in their late teens and 20s, it’s not appealing to add to your appearance the classic symbols of getting old.

Apparently I didn’t fully learn my lesson in high school. As far as I know, no one noticed that along with my now-gray hair I sported another accoutrement of the aging Baby Boomer male: hearing aids.

But I had to test this out. Everyone I encountered could simply be behaving politely, noticing but not saying so. So, an experiment was in order. Most times when I went to lunch or had a coffee meeting with one other person, at the end of the conversation I’d ask if they noticed that I had begun wearing hearing aids.

To this date, everyone has answered that they didn’t notice. I tip my hat, then, to the Phonak designers who made the Audéo Q such a covert device. It also helps that the receiver wire leading into my ear is silver-gray (matching my hair color), and for the behind-the-ear units I chose a color that closely matches the temples of my eyeglasses.

Still, there was some nagging doubt about my hearing aids’ supposed “invisibility.” I’m pleased to say that a coffee meeting with a friend and professional colleague visiting my town recently shed the last bit of doubt about the Audéo Q’s not being essentially invisible.

I updated Dan, fellow digital-media professional and former professional musician, on my recent work, including doing some consulting and writing for Phonak. I didn’t notice the tiny grey wires snaking into Dan’s ears, until he mentioned that he had been using hearing aids very similar to mine.

OK, already! I’m convinced. … Unless when you meet me in person you have reason to stare intently at my ears, you’ll never know that I wear hearing devices.

15 thoughts on “It’s a Vanity Thing: Why I Care That My Hearing Aids Are ‘Invisible’”

  1. Nice. But my collegues, friends, wife, and Kids do know when I am wearing the Hearing aids. It is simply that I can hear them and answer to their question. Without them no conversation is possible.

    Everytime I got knew one I don´t say anything to them and let them check if there is an improvement. ANd it was so, with every new hearing aid every 5-6 year,

    I am remembering my first one, 35years ago, an ugly brown monster behind the ear, with no function than making sounds louder. An analogue ugly loud speaker

    There was a lot of revolution in technique. Thanks for developement to all developer at phonak and round the world.

  2. Most of my friends know that I sometimes wear hearing aids. And some notice when I do not wear them, too. “Where are those things in your ears?” I am wearing them more often now.

  3. I prefer to be an individual not cookie cutter trying to blend into the masses. I think brightly colored hearing aids are much prettier and the way to go. I have been wearing hearing aids since my 20s so I think hearing loss has nothing to do with getting older. In addition I have found out that embracing getting older is more fun than dreading it, my 40s were better than my 30s and so far my 50s are more fun than my 40s. My brightly colored hearing aids make me happy and I could care less if you can see them or not. If I am not wearing them people know I have a hearing loss, so why does it matter if people know when I am wearing them?

  4. As an Audiologist, I am happy that you have pursued hearing aids and they have made a difference in your quality of life. I’m always happy when we can make a difference in the hearing health care of a patient.

    However, as someone who has worn hearing aids since age 3, I was very disappointed at how much you wanted your aids to be invisible. Now, the following is not directly to you, but I wanted to just use this chance to educate the general audience.

    I’ve quite a few patients who also have concerns about visibility of hearing aids. My perspective is this — hearing aids (and cochlear implants, and other hearing technology) are medical devices. One with hearing loss needs such technology to function (unless one identifies oneself as part of the Deaf culture, which is another story) – and vanity should not be the primary concern. FUNCTIONALITY should be a main concern.

    I have many friends similar to my age (I am 27) who are undergraduate / graduate students or working professionals who have had hearing loss since an young age (for a variety of medical reasons) and many of us have quite a significant hearing loss. We’ve all seen this post and shared comments with one another. I can tell you that many of us felt insulted that the first thing we see is the emphasis of vanity in title of the blog.

    We’ve all had VERY difficult battles. Speech therapy and aural rehabilitation. Cumbersome hearing technology that was necessary. Getting teased in school for our hearing loss and being different. Battling with the school system for equal access to education. Getting accommodations to perform our jobs correctly. Making and interacting with friends (and functioning socially in general). On top of this (and many others challenges), we have to prove ourselves that we can function adequately in world dominated by normal hearing people. It’s very hard and taxing at times. Many of us have succeeded (and we are damn proud of that), but there are always people who don’t do as well. As kids, many of our parents had constant worries about how we would do in school and work. Imagine being a parent and making a decision to have your baby get a cochlear implant. Imaging being a teenager having trouble making friends because you can’t hear? Imagine being an adult in the working world and being shuttled around all these meetings which create demands on your hearing.

    So, to the general audience, as an audiologist and as someone who has worn hearing aids since age 3, rethink the vanity point of view you may have towards hearing technology. If you need the technology, then embrace your hearing loss and do something about it.

    Viral Tejani, AuD
    Cochlear Implant Research Audiologist

  5. I think that people will tend to have a different attitude towards hearing aids and how visible they should be depending on the source of their hearing loss.

    Is it age? In that case, chances are that people will want to hide them. Nobody likes to “grow old”.

    For people who have had accidental or congenital hearing loss (earlier in life), I think the situation is different. It’s more part of our identities, and less a sign of “body breaking down” which might be the association with ageing.

    Hmm… I might write a blog post about this.

  6. I’m oral deaf and I’ve worn hearing aids since 2 or 3.

    I don’t really understand why some people want their hearing aids “invisible.” My guess is they are newly hard-of-hearing (mild to moderate hearing loss) or deaf (severe-to-profound hearing loss), and they feel socially uncomfortable with their hearing aids.

    I’m the opposite. I WANT my hearing aids to be visible. I want people to notice them. I want people to realize that I have a profound hearing loss so I can stop explaining it every time I meet someone new, for a change. haha

    When the hearing aids are invisible, my deafness is invisible, and people are much more likely to misunderstand my response or lack of response to something going on or something they said. What they don’t realize is that I didn’t hear them in the first place. So I want my hearing aids visible as a sort of advance notice to those around me.

    It would help a lot if more hard-of-hearing people made their hearing aids as visible as possible. The best way to remove the sting of a social stigma like hearing aids is to flaunt it. Trust me, people will get used to it.

  7. I’m so pleased that my post has generated much discussion and even controversy! (My alerts to several comments above didn’t reach me, so I just saw the most-recent few.)

    Of course, my personal story represents only one segment of the hearing-impaired community: Baby Boomers whose hearing is degrading and so is their quality of life; so after denial and procrastination wear off, we find solutions, of which tech advances have made solutions highly functional and tiny. I do believe that for much of the segment of the hearing community that I represent, “vanity” is a legitimate concern — just like gray hair (some dye it; not me), eyeglasses (some will insist on contacts or Lasik surgery for vanity/fashion reasons), etc. Now that HAs can be essentially “invisible” — and include some nice new capabilities — hearing-impaired Boomers will get HAs earlier, and they’ll get extra years of having a better quality of life. That’s a great thing, IMHO.

    My career is partly as a futurist, so I’m observing the increasing acceleration of technology and computing power, and rapid advances in miniaturization. It’s now fairly obvious that devices for severe hearing loss early in life soon will be tiny. A tiny under- or on-the-skin chip should be able to match or out-do a visible Cochlear implant in the coming years. Cochlear-level electronics (sound processors, microphones) might be inside your “smart” eyeglasses rather than in a behind-the-ear unit; ergo, more comfort. Success has been made in research labs in connecting functional electronics (audio sensors) with biological tissue (nerves). Kids born with hearing impairments in the future may not have to appear any different than their peers.

    But that’s still the (not that far off) future. To those offended by the “vanity” issue, I completely get that point of view, and apologize if I made any readers uncomfortable.

    Viral Tejani wrote: “If you need the technology, then embrace your hearing loss and do something about it.” … My point of view is the same; and being a technology optimist, I believe that these tech and miniaturization advances will permit and nudge more people to “do something about” their hearing issues without silly concerns like “vanity” entering the picture.

  8. I personally also think that miniaturisation is great, but I do share the concerns of those who like the fact their hearing aids make their hearing loss “visible”. If hearing aids increase or improve hearing in a way that makes the “hearing performance” of a hearing-aid user identical to that of a “well-hearing” person who has no use for hearing aids, then I think the issue is less pressing. But if even with hearing aids we still don’t hear as well as a stranger might assume we do (it’s my case, with “just” mild/moderate loss), then having a kind of visual flag which says “hey, if I don’t respond it’s not that I’m rude, it’s just that I simply didn’t hear you” is a good thing. It’s complicated!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *