All too often, we look at those who are simply different as odd, perhaps dangerous, even dumb. So it is in the case of those experiencing hearing loss (hearing loss, deafness or hearing impairment has been defined as “the total or partial inability to hear sounds”). Perhaps you have heard of institutions “For the Deaf and Dumb.” We can easily look at those struggling with hearing loss as lacking mental faculties with which to understand, when all they really lack is hearing aids or sign language interpretation. Often, we who look at those with hearing loss as being odd or worse are the ones who lack understanding. We need to turn hearing loss into a gain individually and communally.
Those who wear hearing aids are no different than the rest of us. Take, for example, glasses. I wear glasses and contact lenses. Some of those reading this article do as well. Without these aids, I could not function normally. Such visual impairments do not render people wearing glasses and contact lenses as abnormal. And yet, when I was growing up, those who wore glasses were often viewed in negative terms: “Hey, Four Eyes!” Fortunately, many of us in need of visual aids no longer experience stigma along these lines. And yet, those who wear hearing aids often experience a sense of awkwardness, possibly even shame.
We need to address such prejudices, including the idea that hearing loss is an elderly person’s disease, or that occurs only as we age. Here it is worth pointing out that increasingly younger people are suffering from hearing loss due to everyday noise. So, as the issue grows, what can we do to challenge negative stereotypes and prejudices associated with hearing loss?
One article titled “Being the Change: How to End Hearing Loss Prejudice” offers several helpful tips that those who experience hearing loss can do to help terminate such stigma. Those tips include: “be out and proud” about wearing hearing aids, “tell people before they notice,” “volunteer,” and “be a joiner.” All too often, the lack of exposure and familiarity are what causes otherwise very caring people to treat those who experience hearing loss in less than gracious and constructive terms. The author encourages those dealing with hearing loss to help educate others through increased visibility. Such initiatives prove beneficial to the growth of those experiencing hearing loss. The old saying “No pain, no gain” may be applicable here. It is never easy to break out and initiate in areas where one feels awkward and at odds with the surrounding community. It often requires great courage to challenge negative, unfair stereotypes. So, when any of us challenge such problematic norms, we become stronger in character as well as improve the social well-being of our society.
There is more to it, though. We need to ask what the rest of us can do to address the prejudices associated with hearing loss. This point came home to me this past school year when I was overseeing plans for a New Wine, New Wineskins conference titled “From Isolation to Invitation: A Conference on Disabilities.” It became readily apparent that we needed to have sign language interpretation available for people who experience hearing loss. Fortunately, we were able to raise the necessary funds to offer that service to the community due to a generous grant provided by the Wayne D. Kuni and Joan E. Kuni Foundation. New Wine, New Wineskins is also able to make available American Sign Language interpretation at our upcoming retreat “From Isolation to Inclusion: A Retreat on Disabilities” at Cannon Beach Conference Center on September 27-29 due to the Kuni Foundation’s gracious partnership. For more information on the retreat and how to register, please refer to this link.
We want to make known to the community at large that we are able to provide sign language interpretation, and here’s why. We have learned from reports shared with us as well as from the direct experience of one of our New Wine leaders who is a parent of children with disabilities that it is quite difficult for people with disabilities to ask for accommodations continuously in so many areas of life. We have been told that they are far more likely to opt out of desired and valuable experiences unless it is apparent that there is a willingness to accommodate their needs. They do not wish to be perceived as a burden. Thus, it is incumbent on the rest of us to grow in sensitivity where we see and hear and act in ways to make sure those who struggle with hearing loss, visual impairments, and other matters like autism are not excluded or seen as a burden to the community at large. Rather, we need to make every effort to ensure that they are treated as vital members. In this way, we also grow and gain, as we become more sensitive to other people whose needs may be different from our own and enriched as individuals and as communities as we become more inclusive. One of the most pressing needs in our society driven increasingly by deafening shouting matches involving rival parties is to listen better. Listening well is a form of love. Listening to the hearing impaired and learning from them rather than holding them at arm’s length is a form of love. It makes it possible for all of us to experience great gain as we open ourselves up to love and to be loved by them.
I close this blog post with the following lines from 1 Corinthians 12:14-20 (ESV), where Paul is addressing the Corinthian church and its growing internal problem with factions and divisions:
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
We all see and hear and communicate in various ways. When we express ourselves in ways aimed at building one another up rather than tearing one another down, it helps us grow individually and as a community. We all need one another. While we may think the hearing impaired could never function as an ear, they may function as an eye or hand. Or perhaps, in some ways, they hear better than the rest of us do in other ways and we need to listen to how it is they hear and learn from them. We need to discern what each one of us brings to the living organism of a given community. After all, we are not here by chance. As Paul himself writes in his letter to the Corinthian church, God has arranged all of us uniquely as members in the body. May God give us discernment not to ignore, discard or belittle the various members of the church body or any other body of people, but carefully consider how to make great gains relationally as a community where we depend on the diverse gifting of one another.