Beyond enabling technical functionality, the Pulse Frames’ form factor allows our flagship product to ride the same wave as an already-accepted type of assistive technology: eyeglasses. Today, glasses are perceived as an accessory rather than an appliance, a fashion statement to be proud of rather than a medical aid signaling a frailty or deficiency. But it hasn’t always been this way.
The 20th century saw the most drastic evolution of the public perception of glasses. Previously reserved for clergymen or scientists who needed to read for work, monocoles and pince-nez glasses were associated with old age and physical weakness. Stigma finally began to fall away in the 1950s, when the American singer Buddy Holly was one of the first celebrities to embrace his large black frames. At a similar time, Hollywood stars were beginning to wear sunglasses to protect their eyes from harsh studio lighting – previously, they were reserved for aviators and extreme athletes. Public figures (John Lennon, Theodore Roosevelt, Whoopi Goldberg, Lady Gaga), media representation in the film industry (Clark Kent/Superman), and marketing efforts by high-influence eyewear companies have all contributed to the modern view of glasses (and even sunglasses!).
The result? Today, glasses are a part of their user’s visual identity. They enhance your features and contribute to an intellectual image, while sunglasses make you feel more attractive, cool, or mysterious. Instead of being referred to as “seeing aids”, glasses are called “eyewear” : a term that reveals their strategic placement outside of the assistive product category.
So, the next natural question is this: if it’s possible for glasses, why is this transition from shameful to sexy proving be so difficult for hearing aids? Here, we’ll talk about just a few facets of this complex acceptability issue: time, media influence, and the intrinsic connection between hearing and communication.
Glasses have evolved significantly since their introduction to the general public in the 16th century. In terms of acceptability, they have a leg up on hearing aids simply due to how long they’ve existed in society: it wasn’t until the 20th century that the first digital hearing aid was available to consumers.
Pop-Culture Influence and Visibility
It’s easy to think of celebrities or politicians who have made glasses a part of their personal brand, or even fictional characters whose glasses add to their intellectual appeal. But when asked to think of influential figures who have proudly brought their hearing impairment into the public eye, you’ll find it’s not as simple. Hearing aids have been deliberately designed to be hidden out of sight... they’re behind the user’s ears, behind their hair, deep in the ear canal with tiny wires, miniaturized, covered in “skin”-colored plastics... Even if someone wanted to, how could they possibly make a bold statement with their hearing aids?
(I’ll talk about the fine line between the invisibility and acceptability of assistive technology, along with the relationship with design and aesthetics, in another post.)
Hearing and Communication
Hearing is the foundation of communication; a key to being understood and socially accepted, and even judged as cognitively sound. Here are just a few examples that show why:
- If you can’t keep up with conversations in a group because you’re too tired or ashamed of asking others to repeat themselves, you might get left out, or perceived as uninteresting or anti-social.
- Side note – In French, bien s’entendre means to get on well with someone, and it literally translates to “hear each other well” – and mal s’entendre conveys the opposite.
- If you can’t hear what an instructor is saying, you might miss important information and perform poorly later during school evaluations. This could unknowingly be attributed to a child’s intellect, rather than their hearing, which has been demonstrated in research (Lieu et al. 2012, Daud et al. 2010).
- In the WHO’s world report on hearing, the authors cite “deep-seated cultural beliefs and myths about hearing loss [that] persist in many communities of the world where a deaf child may be regarded, erroneously, as a bad omen who may bring misfortune on the family” (p. 151).
- When asking someone to repeat themselves, you could say “I didn’t understand what you said” or “I didn’t hear what you said” – but why do understand and hear imply the same thing?
The perceived connections between auditory ability, cognitive ability, and social ability are major contributing factors to the stigma around hearing loss, which is the number one factor preventing adoption of hearing treatment.
At Pulse Audition, our goal is to serve individuals with light-to-moderate hearing loss by promoting the adoption of hearing treatment from several angles. By providing an easy-to-adopt solution that will significantly improve the user’s quality of life where they need it the most, and by fighting the stigmatization of hearing loss, we will fight to increase awareness about its effects and normalize the use of assistive hearing technology.