My name is Jen, and I am a mom, wife, and business owner. I am also hearing impaired. I recently learned that 48 million people suffer from hearing loss and 80% of those people do nothing about it. I am one of those individuals. This is my story of choosing to live with hearing loss for 40 years, and how a few life changes (hello, motherhood) and one viral LinkedIn post inspired me to jumpstart my journey to better hearing health.
My Hearing Loss Journey
Each hearing loss comes with a unique backstory. I was born with “cookie bite” hearing loss in both ears, which means I have difficulty hearing the middle frequencies where human speech lives. The term “cookie bite” refers to how my audiogram looks – like someone took a big bite out of the middle. This type of loss can be genetic or from ear infections that occurred during childhood, but the consensus was that a nerve in both my ears didn’t form properly. My loss was moderate – an initial loss of about 30% in my right ear and 35% in my left.
The silver lining around being born with hearing impairments is that I learned how to adapt to different environments. In fact, no one knew I had significant hearing loss until I failed my first preschool hearing test. Since then, I have spent a lifetime working to make the most of every situation and be in the best position to hear. I subconsciously learned to read lips, facial expressions, and body language and listen for context clues. I also made conscious efforts to hear from strategic angles. In school, I sat at the front of the class so I could listen to my teacher better and see her mouth easier. Outside the classroom, if someone began speaking to me, I moved closer to the person and positioned myself so I could see their face. It was constant work, but it was just what I had to do.
Growing up, I didn’t want to admit that I was hearing impaired as I didn’t want it to define me. But I did such a good job at making up for my hearing loss, even my best friends would forget I was hearing impaired. They would try to talk to me when my back was turned or when they were in another room, or they tried to whisper to me at a sleepover when the light was out. Whether with my best friend, a teacher, or a complete stranger, I found I was forced to make the same decision time after time: Do I tell or remind this person I am hearing impaired and ask them to repeat themselves (for a second, third or fourth time) or to pretend I heard everything they said and attempt to react accordingly? Many times, I was too ashamed of my disability that I chose not to ask people to repeat themselves. I missed out on a lot, even though I acted like I heard every word. But sometimes people got mad when they had to repeat themselves, rolled their eyes and told me, “Never mind.” And as a kid, I wanted to avoid that, and to a large degree, I still do.
BTEs? Not For Me
When I was 17, an ENT told me I qualified to receive free hearing aids through a grant. While I was not thrilled with the large, bulky, behind-the-ear hearing aids, I said yes to trying them out because I had nothing to lose. After a few weeks of wearing BTE hearing aids, and getting headaches from the constant noise, I had enough. I preferred my abnormal level of hearing than living in a world where everything was too loud. More importantly, I don’t think I was mentally ready for them.
Being young and hearing impaired was tough, but being a hearing-impaired adult has been even more of a challenge. In my professional life, large group business meetings have been stressful. Despite my best efforts to sit in a location to maximize my chances of hearing well, speakers aren’t always good communicators. If a presenter speaks with their back turned, talks while looking down at their notes, mumbles, speaks too quietly, or moves to a location where I don’t have a clear view of their mouth, I’ll start to panic. Small group and one-on-one meetings have also been stressful. These meetings usually occur over coffee or lunch. Background noise has always been a struggle for me, so I work extra hard at focusing to hear my client over the chatter of espresso machines and other diners.
I even began to shy away from great opportunities, like speaking engagements, because I was scared to death of not being able to hear audience members ask me their questions during the final Q&A. I feared asking someone to repeat themselves would not leave me in good standing with those who I delivered an otherwise great presentation.
How Hearing Loss Hurt My Personal Life
In my personal life, my biggest revelation about how much I am missing due to my hearing impairments came with the birth of my beautiful daughter. (She has amazing hearing, by the way.) As she began to grow up and learned to speak, I realized I wasn’t hearing every word her little voice was saying, and it broke my heart.
Around the same time, I realized when I’m running errands I sometimes miss out on interactions with others. I lost count of how many times I walked into a store and someone in the room asks if I need help finding something, and I have no idea they are there or speaking to me. One week in particular, two people reacted negatively while I was reading their lips as they spoke. I make a conscious effort to look others in the eyes when they speak, but with unfamiliar voice tones and inflections, I have to look at the speaker’s mouth to help hear what they are saying. That didn’t go over well with these individuals, and it made them self-conscious. One person even made it clear they thought I was downright rude.
This was the start of my breaking point. I was meeting new people all the time in my business and wondering whether my clients felt the same way as these strangers? I took to LinkedIn, where my current and future business contacts were, and wrote a short post about lip reading while hearing impaired. My goals of the post were to let existing and potential clients know about my invisible disability and to spread awareness about adults with different communication needs.
One Small Post for Jen, One Giant Leap for Jen’s Hearing
The post spread like wildfire. The comment section became filled with thousands of messages of support from hearing-abled individuals, as well as professionals bravely admitting that they too were hearing impaired. Many commenters mentioned my post was a great reminder to be a better communicator – to speak clearly, make better eye contact and to be more mindful of others’ professional and personal needs. I was so pleased about the positive impact my post was having!
I received hundreds of meaningful messages and emails encouraging me to explore getting hearing aids, something others wished they would have done sooner. I also had a few parents contact me about their children having surgical procedures to correct their hearing. Parents thanked me for sharing my story because they have a child who is hearing impaired. I let these parents know that while living with a hearing disability is challenging, it has also been a blessing in important ways. It taught me how to adapt and be a problem solver, how to work hard, how to be assertive, how to be a good listener and communicator, and how to be empathetic of others.
I also received dozens of messages from people who confided in me about being in the same boat with their own hearing loss. They wanted to thank me for helping to spread awareness about hearing impairment but did not want to publicly comment on the post in fear someone in their circles would learn their secret. My heart went out to these individuals, and I found myself encouraging them to prioritize their hearing health.
And then a lightbulb went off: I’m encouraging others to take action for themselves. Why wasn’t I doing something about my own hearing loss? I had a list of excuses. Hearing aids are too expensive. My ears get too sweaty with hearing aids. I don’t like having things in my ears. I don’t want people to see my hearing aids and think less of me. I didn’t want my hearing impairment to define me.
After the viral LinkedIn post, I became hyper-aware of everything I was missing out on. Most notably, I realized how much energy in any given day is devoted to struggling to hear and make sense of everything around me. How would I feel at the end of the day if I could simply hear better? Would I be more relaxed? Happier?
For 40 years, I have been one of those 48 million hearing impaired people and one of those 80% who don’t do anything to help themselves. What took so long? Maybe I had to walk this specific journey for a reason? Maybe I was meant to write that LinkedIn post and this blog post to support and encourage others with hearing loss? It took 40 years, but I am finally ready to turn the page and start a new chapter, a new journey to hearing every moment. It’s time – no more excuses. I am ready to make a long-overdue change that can only benefit my life and the people in it. I’m doing this for my business clients, for my friends, for my family, for my daughter…and most importantly, I’m doing this for me.
Jen Tacbas is a brand designer and marketing strategist for professionals, creatives and small businesses. Based in southeast Georgia, Jen serves clients in diverse industries across the U.S. to create powerful online presences and effective marketing strategies. Follow Jen’s hearing health journey on Instagram and LinkedIn.