New York’s second annual Disability Pride Parade on July 10 included representatives of various national hearing loss associations. They marched because hearing loss is a disability, but more importantly, because hearing loss is a hidden disability. We can never remind people too often that people with hearing loss need accommodations as much as someone in a wheelchair.
Like most hidden disabilities, hearing loss comes with baggage that contributes to people’s reluctance to be open about the condition. Historically, hearing loss has been considered a sign of old age, impairment and declining mental capacities. Those with mental conditions, even when those conditions are controlled with medication, face similar worries about revealing their hidden health issues.
But this secrecy can have a deleterious effect on professional and personal relationships, affecting job performance and mental and physical health. I wrote about this in 2013 in a New York Times article headlined, “Quandary of Hidden Disabilities: Conceal or Reveal.”
Keeping a secret like this, living every day pretending you’re something you’re not, is debilitating. It undermines your confidence. You wonder if the disability is affecting your job performance and, if it is, if you’re the only one who doesn’t know it. You worry your employer or your colleagues will find out and you’ll lose your job. Firing someone for a disability is forbidden by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but employers find ways around it.
There is also the stress of having a condition that may get worse. With hearing loss, the progression is often unpredictable. I first lost my hearing in one ear when I was 30. I never dreamed that by the age of 60 I’d be profoundly deaf in that ear and close to it in the other. Because the cause of my hearing loss is undiagnosed, I also live with the worry that it may be a symptom of an as-yet-undiagnosed larger medical condition.
Those with disabilities bear the responsibility to speak out, but others should be sensitive to the fact that they may not feel confident enough to do so.
There are ways professionals can avoid inadvertently discriminating against people with hidden disabilities. Medical professionals need to recognize that complaints about depression and anxiety, as well as memory loss, may reflect an underlying, unacknowledged hearing loss. Psychotherapists need to recognize the symptoms of a hidden disability with new patients, draw them out about it, and then confront the issues that the disability contributes to.
Finally, those who work with the elderly have a special responsibility to recognize hearing loss. Fully 50 to 80 percent of their clients will have hearing loss. It’s easy to mistake unrecognized — or even acknowledged — hearing loss for cognitive decline or even dementia.