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August 06, 2005

Seeing, hearing, fashion, shame

A listserv on which I mostly lurk had a message yesterday about a website I just had to visit: Deafness in Disguise: Concealed Hearing Devices of the 19th and 20th Centuries. It's an online exhibit, really -- of all sorts of "hearing devices" -- from what were referred to as "ear trumpets" back in the 1800s to the electronic hearing aids we now know. Many many photos. The home page image is a wondrous porcelain device of some sort, disguised to look like (to my eye, anyway) an elaborate vase holding... camellias??
I wandered around a bit on the site, hoping to find some discussion about the issues that led people to want to disguise hearing devices. Never found a word of "analysis" of this sort. (Maybe one of you will be a more diligent searcher.) I did find the page on marketing, and was interested to note the common trajectory of first marketing only to medical providers, then marketing directly to "consumers." And we all know the ads for hearing aids that run in magazines and newspapers and on TV. That seems to me to be the trajectory wheelchairs -- well, scooters, anyway -- are taking as well.
I've always been curious as to why vision loss has not had the stigma of hearing loss -- I'm not talking about blindness, now; I'm talking about garden-variety nearsightedness that requires one to wear glasses. Yes, alright; it did have a stigma when I was growing up -- for girls, especially (and we could talk about gender issues and sexism here, but that's not this blog). But it seems that several decades ago -- certainly by the 80s -- things had taken a really different turn, and eyeglasses became cool. As they still are. When people forego contacts to wear glasses, that seemed significant. People who didn't even need them wore glasses as a fashion statement. People buy cheap reading glasses in WalMart; have them scattered around the house; wear them on chains. And of course sunglasses are the definition of cool -- and have mostly always been. Think of the Beat Generation.
Commercials for LASIK eye surgery are now trying their hardest to undo this; to make people ashamed of wearing glasses -- so they'll get eye surgery on their myopia. Stupid, stupid, I think. But then I don't cotton to the idea of cosmetic surgery of any sort.
What interests me about those commercials is how they very deliberately set out to undo an advance: a person's lack of concern about wearing glasses was a real move in the right direction, and now the medical model is attempting to make people ashamed of glasses again -- like we were as little girls. The item being hawked is surgery, not contacts, but the effort to instill shame goes to the same root.
But the real question for me, to get back to the topic of this post, is: why have hearing aids never made the leap that glasses did? Why are glasses cool, but hearing aids still something people want to hide?
COMMENT-BODY:Why no gender issues or sexism, Mary?

People with disabilities certainly have sex, and gender. Some disabilities even create novel gender identities.
COMMENT-BODY:I've always assumed that it was to do with social issues. I've a very mild hearing problem - probably akin to only needing glasses for small print - and people get very upset when I can't hear them properly and have to get them to repeat themselves. A vision problem is worked around (for instance getting someone to read the menu for you), but a hearing problem is taken as a personal insult. Less socially acceptable, so (ironically) less likely to get help.

Secondly, hearing aids reside in the ear (at least partially), and a lot of people have an 'eeeewww' response to that.
COMMENT-BODY:Here's a news story on this very topic from Wired mag online: www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,68419,00.html
Trendy deaf-tech gadgets "hold the key to a new era in personal audio technology, designers say -- if only they can make them as fashionable as spectacles." Another quote from the piece" "HearWear - The Future of Hearing, a new exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, shows off trendy deaf-tech prototypes like gadgets that can filter out annoying noises and memory glasses that replay the last few seconds of conversation -- handy for wearers who might have missed someone's name."

I'll bet it will happen. Years ago, the three-wheeled scooter, a boon to many people with mobility impairments, really took off only after manufacturers started dressing them up in bright colors, adding lights and other gizmos that made them attractive to people who wouldn't have been caught dead in a wheelchair.
COMMENT-AUTHOR:Penny L. Richards
COMMENT-BODY:So, hearing aids are still being disguised and hidden, but there are billboards all over LA (and I suspect the rest of the US) with dancing silhouettes sporting VERY conspicuous white earbuds and cords leading to a handheld iPod... hmmm. I wonder if that's part of the confusion--people are used to seeing devices in people's ears that they're listening TO, not THROUGH. (With glasses, it's the other way 'round.)

Posted by mjohnson at August 6, 2005 12:53 PM