Hearing loss is one of the most common medical problems in the world. Hearing loss greater than 40 dB affects approximately 466 million people worldwide, or about 5% of the global population but, unfortunately, many people with hearing loss experience significant stigma because of their condition.
For many people who develop hearing loss later in life, it can be difficult to come to terms with a new reality. It can be difficult to accept the changes in one’s hearing and many people avoid treatment and care for their condition out of embarrassment or shame. People who are born with hearing loss or deafness experience this stigma and isolation, too, and often to a greater degree.
Social stigmas surrounding hearing loss may not be a healthcare problem in and of themselves, but there are a number of steps that hearing healthcare professionals can take to help alleviate these issues for their patients. Before we discuss different ways in which hearing professionals can help reduce stigma, let’s look at the different ways that stigma can manifest itself in people with hearing loss.
The Types Of Stigma
People without hearing loss may not see the ways in which our societal preconceptions surrounding hearing loss can have a powerful negative impact on people. To better understand the stigma around hearing loss, it can be helpful to categorize its different forms.
Generally speaking, stigma can be categorized as either internal or external, based on where the negative messages come from. Internal stigma comes from the negative ideas that an individual with hearing loss tells themselves about their condition. Often these messages can cause feelings of embarrassment, vulnerability, shame, and fear.
People who feel large amounts of internal stigma may worry about not being able to hear during an important meeting or feel that if they ask for special accommodations from their employers, that they might experience backlash and get fired.
In addition to internal stigma, many people with hearing loss also experience significant amounts of external stigma. External stigmas are messages and actions that come from other people, whether they be family, friends, colleagues, or strangers. Often, when a person has trouble hearing, others become impatient, which only increases the embarrassment or discomfort of the person with hearing loss.
Both external and internal stigma can have profound effects on people with hearing loss. It can be challenging and heartbreaking for hearing healthcare providers to see that their patients are experiencing such negative messages. Moreover, many hearing healthcare professionals may find that people with hearing loss are often reluctant to seek out care because of the fears and embarrassment associated with their condition.
That being said, hearing healthcare professionals are particularly well situated to help people address the stigma around hearing loss. As trusted and talented medical professionals, they can provide the guidance and support necessary to help patients advocate for themselves in a world that is often less than kind to people with hearing loss. Here are some ways that hearing healthcare professionals can help their patients address their stigma:
- Encourage your patients to discuss their stigma. Many people may not be fully aware that their own internal biases and attitudes are affecting their hearing well-being. Especially if they needed lots of encouragement from family or friends to see a hearing healthcare professional in the first place, a patient may not yet be comfortable with their condition and may not be willing to accept it. By asking open-ended questions that encourage patients to discuss how their hearing loss has already affected them, patients can begin to accept the power of stigma and start to address it productively.
- Help your patients list the different situations in which they struggle to hear. When hearing healthcare professionals take the time to sit with a patient and discuss how their hearing loss affects their daily routine, they can help people understand the impacts that hearing loss is having on their day to day life. Hearing specialists can also ask questions about how these situations make patients feel, which will encourage patients to confront their stigmas.
- Discuss different accommodations that may help a patient with hearing loss. Particularly if a patient has developed hearing loss later in life, they may not know what accommodations are available to them or how to access these services. A hearing healthcare provider can offer valuable advice and support for their patients.
It can be difficult to see people struggling with the stigma of their hearing loss. Hearing healthcare providers can offer the support, advice, and encouragement that a patient needs to address their stigma in a productive and positive way.