Lend An Ear: May Is Speech & Hearing Month

May 1, 2024

As a teenager, Matthew Kowalchuk, a Vancouver-based writer and director, saw a counsellor about his hearing. “I convinced her everything was fine,” he says. “That was a crossroads where things could have changed, where it might have been different. But she had her own perceptions.”

Kowalchuk lost his hearing at the age of 14, an event compounded by a recent move to a new city and school, where he was living with his mom for the first time since he was a child. “If I had been in the same school as the year before, I think something different would have happened. Because teachers would have noticed a change,” he says. “I wouldn’t have just been the new kid at the back of the class.” As it was, months passed before his hearing loss was finally noticed and diagnosed.

His story is unique, but he’s not alone. The world is getting louder and, as the din increases, so do the instances of noise-induced hearing loss. The World Health Organization cautions that a billion young people are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices—just one of many reasons a person of any age can have their hearing impacted. Yet stigma surrounding hearing loss in people on the younger end of the spectrum persists.

Part of the trouble is that it’s difficult to tell when you have it—a problem compounded in younger demographics, since it’s often not screened until later years, if at all. That was the case for Dawn Mills, a Vancouver-based hairstylist working in the film industry. She was in her late 30s when she first got hearing aids. “Sometimes you just don’t realize, because it’s kind of a gradual thing,” she says. “But then, after a while, people are like, you have the TV on really loud, and you’re saying ‘What?’ a lot. And then you know that’s probably a time when you should go.”

Danielle Lafleur, an audiologist at Neil Squire Hearing Solutions and PhD student at UBC, knows that perceptions around hearing loss keep younger people from coming to her office to have their hearing tested. “People postpone coming into our office because of the stigma. A lot of that is a fear of aging,” she says. “A hearing aid just makes it a little more real. But knowing that hearing aids aren’t only for an older population, older generation, might help break that down.”

Not to mention that primary physicians have their own biases, and are often a patient’s first point of contact. “Health providers might not consider hearing loss as a potential problem for a younger patient,” says Lafleur. “They might see hearing loss as primarily an older problem as well.”

There are drawbacks, beyond the obvious, to leaving hearing loss undiagnosed. And although withdrawal is somewhat normal at 14—“I just kind of hid in my bedroom and put on my Walkman,” says Kowalchuk—it’s difficult to manage as a working, socializing adult. According to Lafleur, it’s a common symptom of undiagnosed hearing loss.

Alicia Haque, a photographer and content creator with more than 33K followers on Instagram, experienced that first-hand. Diagnosed with hearing loss at the age of 29, she now wears a hearing aid daily. “I’d slowly altered my life to accommodate my hearing over the years,” she says, via email. “I stopped going to yoga classes, which are typically very quiet. I watched TV with subtitles. I would only take video calls with headphones.” And those are just a few examples, she says, of how she’d rearranged her life.

After years of struggling, she finally went for a test, where her hearing loss was confirmed. She notes: “You rarely see hearing loss talked about in the context of young people and I felt embarrassed and alone. However, I’ve since learned that hearing loss can occur at any age for various reasons, but the stigma and lack of awareness prevents young people from getting tested.”

Even with the correct diagnosis, there are barriers to care. Beginning with the cost, which is substantial. “From my initial research, I learned that the price range spanned from $1,000 to $10,000 for a set of hearing aids,” says Haque. “It’s a very closed industry in this regard, and you only get an accurate price once you sit down with an audiologist.” Her own ITE (in-the-ear) hearing aid cost $6,000 and has a three-to-five-year lifespan. “Over the course of my lifetime I could end up spending $50,000-plus on hearing aids,” she says.

“That’s definitely one of the biggest barriers for the younger generation, who may not have had that time to accumulate those funds or that wealth that is associated with this investment,” says Lafleur. However, she explains, there’s a flipside. “Untreated hearing loss, so hearing loss without hearing aids or any other management, can result in an annual loss of household income of about $24,000 per year.” Plus, she says, “People with hearing loss also experience increased medical costs.” She gives the example of a client who struggled with addiction until his hearing loss was diagnosed.

Then there’s the day-to-day interactions. A recurring hurdle are exchanges with strangers, or others who don’t understand or may not consider hearing impairment as a reason for communication difficulties. “Don’t bother with her, she can’t hear,” says Mills, who has experienced this. “Or, go talk to somebody else because it’s faster.”

Kowalchuk relayed a situation at a theatre when he asked to sit near the front, explaining he was hard of hearing. “They were like, ‘Well, you should learn to adapt.’ And I’m like, ‘This is me adapting,’” he says. “I certainly don’t want to go through the whole back-and-forth process of them not understanding, not getting it, and me having to defend myself for saying, can you accommodate me? Most of my life, I have accommodated the hearing world.”

“Approaching people from a place of compassion and understanding rather than judgment or presumption is so important,” says Haque. “If you notice someone is asking you to repeat yourself, or they aren’t acknowledging your communication, consider hearing impairment as a possible reason, even if they’re young.”

We’re not there yet, but attitudes are steadily changing—as is the tech. “One thing I’m seeing is that some younger people are liking the technology,” says Lafleur. “A lot of them are Bluetooth compatible. They connect to your phone. There’s some that are completely in your ear … you can wear your typical AirPods, whatever you want, over the hearing aids. Hopefully that increase in tech is interesting to some of the younger demographics.

“I do use it as an anecdote when people come in and they’re worried about something in their ears: everyone’s got something in their ears nowadays,” she adds, pulling out her own AirPods. “I’ve got these in all day.” —Jill Von Sprecken


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