I faintly heard the flight attendant’s voice but had no idea what they said. I looked to my right and left to see the reactions from others on the plane, but most people remained asleep or with their eyes glued to the screen in front of them. I shrugged it off, assuming we would be landing soon, but in reality, I had no idea. I was still perceiving my world in a series of faint whispers.
I dug into my bag and pulled out my hearing aid case. Little pieces of technology that I had been told to wear since a child. I popped them out of their charger and pushed them in my ears. Finally, I was able to hear.
Traveling with hearing aids has always been a source of anxiety for me. Even though I’ve been traveling since a child, it wasn’t until I started solo traveling that I had to start facing my hearing loss fears head-on.
As I waited for the plane to descend, I remembered the times in customs when I would just nod, smile, and pretend like I heard what was said.
“Ma’am, did anyone help you pack your bag?” the customs officer asked.
“Uhh yes?” I replied with a smile and nod, my face turning bright red.
“Ma’am, did you hear what I said?” I knew he was confused after receiving an answer he didn’t expect.
“Uh, honestly, no,” I said with embarrassment. “Can you repeat that?”
I shuddered thinking about the experience and refocused on what I needed to accomplish. After the nine-hour flight from Chicago to Switzerland, I knew I needed to be alert.
I departed the plane and walked briskly to customs, eager to get the interaction over with.
My heart was beating fast as the customs officer waved me over to the counter. I stood on the tips of my toes trying to hear his questions.
But this time something was different. This time I heard the questions. A small smile appeared on my face as I stepped out of the airport. What was different this time?
It was my first time wearing my hearing aids while traveling.
Growing Up with Hearing Loss
I was born with mild-to-moderate bilateral hearing loss. No one knew I was hard of hearing until I was five-years-old when I struggled to learn in a chaotic pre-school classroom. My parents were puzzled to find out that I was struggling in school. I had always responded in quiet environments and engaged with my friends and family at home, but in pre-school, I was just not engaged in learning and didn’t talk to my peers.
The teachers said I most likely had a learning disability, but my parents disagreed. My mom decided to see for herself and joined my pre-school class for a couple of months, which led her to believe I wasn’t hearing well in the loud room. After getting my hearing tested, she was right.
Growing up, I was one of the few kids at school who wore hearing aids. I had to sit in the front of the class with my big brown hearing aids on my ears, constantly struggling to keep up with my peers. I felt like all eyes were on me. I couldn’t escape being “the girl with hearing aids.”
As I got older, I stopped wearing my hearing aids. This is a decision I now regret, but at the time it was an easy way for me to blend in with everyone else. This habit stayed with me throughout high school and college and came with several negative consequences. Social situations were tough, and school became more tiresome and challenging as lectures weren’t always easy to hear. As I got older, I knew this had to change.
Accepting My Hearing Loss
As I prepared to graduate college, I started pondering companies to apply for. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but as I sat at my desk, my silver hearing aid case caught my eye. The letters “P-H-O-N-A-K,” which I normally ignored, were suddenly shining bright, catching my eye. I took it as a sign, and soon after, I began to work for the hearing aid company. It was this path that led me to become more involved with the deaf and hard of hearing community, which gave me the strength and support to accept my hearing loss identity and understand that it doesn’t define who I am. Finally, I had a newfound confidence and pride in my hearing loss.
Except there was one place where I still didn’t wear my hearing aids: Traveling.
Traveling with Hearing Loss
Traveling is a passion of mine and I have been doing it since I can remember. My parents wanted me and my brothers to see the world from a young age and some of my favorite childhood memories include backpacking through Europe, road trips across the U.S., and exploring temples in Asia.
Whenever I traveled with my family and friends, I never brought my hearing aids. My excuse was that I didn’t want to lose them, which was partially true because they are incredibly expensive. But the more realistic reason was that I didn’t want to bring my insecurities with me as I discovered a new world. My hearing aids were a physical reminder of a part of my life that I wanted to push aside and forget about.
A few years ago, I finally got my dream opportunity to work as a digital nomad. I didn’t think twice about seizing the opportunity to travel while working. However, in the back of my mind, I had fears around traveling with hearing loss. I worried about what it would be like traveling alone without being able to fully hear. What if I missed an important train or airport announcement? What if I couldn’t understand someone’s accent?
As an avid traveler, I knew that I would be able to figure out alternative ways to communicate, but that didn’t stop the nerves. I was especially nervous about the overwhelming feeling of embarrassment stemming from constant misunderstandings and not having anyone else to rely on if I misheard anything. My independent self cringes as I write that sentence, but it’s true.
I knew I would have to bring my hearing aids with me on this trip.
It was going to be my first trip in 25 years where I was actually going to wear my hearing aids.
I could not have been happier with my decision to do so.
How Hearing Aids Helped Me On My Travels
Wearing my hearing aids gave me a travel experience I never thought was possible as someone with hearing loss.
For the first time, I could hear the tour guide speaking about the rich histories that built the incredible cities I visited. It was thrilling to catch all the details. So thrilling, in fact, that I was the one tourist taking notes because I didn’t want to forget a moment. I felt braver as I sparked conversations with locals or tried my best to place an order of a meal in the local language. I felt safer being able to better hear cars and bikes zooming past me as I walked miles on streets that are now ingrained in my memory. Sounds of wind blowing through trees, waterfalls crashing down, and rain pattering on the rooftops – all experiences I couldn’t hear before, but now enhanced my experience.
Each sound while traveling formed a symphony of memories that will allow me to remember my first solo trip forever. These moments helped me fall in love with my hearing aids. The technology allowed me to uniquely connect with each place where I left my footprints. I no longer felt an obligation to wear my hearing aids and welcomed them as a partner to share my life with. Traveling with hearing aids has given me a different lens to view the world from, which I am so grateful for.
Gaining Confidence with Hearing Loss
According to the World Health Organization, over 5% of the world’s population has disabling hearing loss. While hearing loss affects people of all ages, it becomes more common with age, affecting nearly half of all people over 75. Despite the prevalence of hearing loss, however, most people – like my former self– don’t address it.
But traveling with my hearing aids gave me the chance to face my fears head-on and proudly embrace what makes me different. I also gained the confidence to talk about my hearing loss with others I met along my journey. It has also given me the opportunity to break down stigmas and spread hearing loss awareness, simply by being myself. That is a beautiful gift.
If you have hearing loss and are hesitant to wear hearing aids, or feel like you have to miss out on traveling experiences due to your hearing loss, here are tips to feel more confident to travel with hearing aids:
Express Yourself and Show Your Style
The stigma and stereotypes that “hearing aids are for old people,” or are big, ugly banana-sized technology is ending. There are now many ways to decorate your hearing aids to show off your style and make them feel more like you. Whether that is adding more color to them, or adding hearing aid jewelry, there are many ways to express yourself through your hearing aids.
This may also lead to someone noticing your hearing aids and sparking a conversation about them. Although this may feel vulnerable at first, it may lead to a great conversation or maybe even a new travel friend. All the conversations I have had about my hearing aids while traveling have been positive and opened the door for amazing individuals to enter my life. If shame or embarrassment overwhelms me about my hearing aids, I have found that talking about them or making them stand out combats this. Through open dialogue, I have noticed that I am able to change hearing loss misconceptions while simultaneously eliminating my feelings of shame or embarrassment, which stemmed from incorrect hearing loss stereotypes and stigmas.
As research professor Brené Brown says, “The less you talk about it [shame], the more you got it. Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”
I encourage you to show off your hearing aids and be open about how they increase your quality of life, especially while traveling. This will allow you to feel more confident with your hearing aids.
Take advantage of the amazing technology built into your hearing aids
Hearing aids are practically tiny computers for your ears. Many modern hearing aids have Bluetooth connectivity and programs that help you focus your hearing in difficult hearing situations.
Honestly, when I am wearing my hearing aids, I feel somewhat like a superhero. I can stream the audio guidance from my GPS into my ears, allowing me to hear directions without looking at my phone. I can also hear better in noisy situations, allowing me to feel more confident in the midst of my travels. Using Bluetooth I can also stream music, podcasts, or talk on the phone without having to worry about taking my hearing aids off to use headphones. Many times, my hearing aids have served me as yet another travel tool to help me feel safer and more prepared.
Remember that hearing isn’t your only method of communication
I have always been hyper-aware of the miscommunication and misunderstandings that I have with others because of my hearing loss. Hearing aids aren’t perfect, and you might not catch every sound all the time. But a large part of traveling is about learning to communicate across language barriers and oftentimes, even if you can hear, you still can’t communicate. Showing yourself compassion and using body language, drawings, and other methods will help you feel more confident when communicating.
Traveling uses all your senses to their maximum capacity and your hearing can be a part of this too. Appreciating the new sounds of new places can enrich and make your experience even more memorable.
If your hearing aids are sitting in your drawer right now, I recommend giving them another chance. They may surprise you.