My journey with hearing loss began 2 years ago when I was diagnosed with otosclerosis in my left ear, a genetic condition that affects the bones in the middle ear and leads to impaired or complete loss of hearing. It’s a fairly unknown condition but affects 1 in 10 Americans. It’s twice as common in females and symptoms most often begin in the early 20s. The path to a diagnosis, getting passed from doctor to doctor to ENT to radiologist to surgeon, was tumultuous to say the least but accepting it afterward was the most difficult. I was a healthy 24-yr-old who was, like many others, convinced hearing loss only affected the elderly and participated in the stigma associated with hearing aids. Learning that I’d need to wear one daily to function normally was a hit that I responded to with stubborn denial and refusal to go through with it until I realized how much my quality of life was negatively affected. But even after giving in, I never wore my hair up and only told people closest to me that I wore one, always consciously hiding it. I avoided wearing it in situations where I knew it could be exposed. This was often at events or concerts, experiences where I’d most benefit from normal hearing. The fear of being associated with this stigma held me back. The embarrassment was driven by not just the stigma but the archaic design. The software has improved greatly, with bluetooth, custom programming, mobile app remote, and more, yet the aesthetics have remained the same unsexy things that don’t flow with the body. My hearing loss is a part of who I am now, I want a hearing aid that I’m proud to make a part of my body. I’ve learned it’s actually pretty cool how much this little thing enhances my life. Not only is my hearing brought from 40% to nearly 90% normal levels, I have a mini bluetooth speaker almost imperceptibly with me wherever I go. It’s super convenient for that Uber ride where the driver’s music isn’t what I want or someone on the metro is talking too loud. When I forget my headphones and want to listen to a podcast or music, no problem. The other day I was at dinner in a busy restaurant and my sister called to update me on her wedding plans. I normally would’ve needed to leave to take the call but I could hear her voice perfectly through the little hidden speaker that directs sound straight into my left ear. My friend across from me made a comment that stuck ‘it’s like a cyborg superpower’. Hell yeah it is. I want to change the perception of hearing loss and improve the experience for the millions who suffer from it at an early age. These devices are extensions of our self and enhance our lives and communication, that’s exciting and innovative and powerful, it should be treated and designed as such.
Over 3 million Americans deal with otosclerosis, millions more suffer from early-onset hearing loss due to loud music and concerts that are increasingly common among the younger generations. The biggest problem with this is that many people don’t even know they have it. In the CDC’s analysis of more than 3,500 hearing tests, one out of four adults claimed their hearing was just fine, yet hearing tests indicated they already had noise-induced hearing loss. It’s an insidious thing, you don’t realize what’s happening until the people around you tell you they’re sick of repeating themselves. It’s difficult to know it’s hearing loss without getting an audiogram, which another study says is less common than getting a colonoscopy. This poses big problems down the line, those with hearing loss are 2-3x more likely to come down with Alzheimer’s later in life. This isn’t something we should ignore. Hearing tests should be more common and accessible and hearing loss should be as destigmatized as impaired vision. Why isn’t the hearing aid treated the same way glasses are? Glasses can be fabulous and character-defining, many creative designers compete in the market to make that the case. Who’s designing a hearing aid for a healthy, stylish 22-yr-old female? Likely not someone who gets what she cares about. We need a hearing technology company for her. One that offers innovative hearing devices not only with the newest software but with sleek and beautiful hardware that flows with the body, represents the power and innovation the technology holds, and aesthetics designed for a grossly underserved side of this market—thriving young individuals. We need to make audiograms, hearing loss treatment, and hearing technology seamless and accessible by bringing it to where people are, right on their devices. We need a community that supports these people, raises awareness of how common hearing loss is and changes the perception of it. It’s just not that big of a deal. At the time of my diagnosis, it felt like my world collapsed around me. It felt like I was flawed and disabled and imperfect in a way that no healthy eating or workout routine or mindfulness could improve, something I’ve never had to deal with and had no idea how to deal with. I imagine most people feel this shame and vulnerability when discovering they have hearing loss, and that’s a big number. Likely more than we know. It’s estimated that 40 million Americans ages 20 to 69 have hearing damage from everyday loud noise, that’s on top of the millions more who inherited it.
There have already been exciting strides in the industry. thanks to the lobbying from Doppler Labs and Elizabeth Warren, the Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act signed in 2017 has made it possible for any company to go direct to consumer and compete with the costs of medically approved devices that are monopolized by a few big players. Those devices cost a few hundred to manufacture yet customers are charged thousands. Sadly, Doppler Labs fell prey to the hardware plague, but I think they did it wrong. Rather than targeting early-onset hearing loss market, they went big and broad from the beginning, vowing to build the ‘computer for your ear’ and going after any future-loving techy. The reality is, the only people who care about enhancing their hearing are those with hearing loss. And that market is big and underserved on its own, I think they missed the ball in not zeroing in on them. I think the opportunity is still wide open and desperate for disruption.