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Will New Design Trends Lessen the Stigma of Hearing Aids?

More wireless devices and new looks are changing the world of hearing aids

By Steve Outing

Have you noticed that more people are putting wireless electronic devices in, or on, their ears? This significant trend has grown, in part, by Apple's decision to make its latest iPhones without headphone jacks. This got me thinking: What implications does this have for those of us who wear hearing aids?

Hearing Aids
Credit: Adobe Stock
  • Will there be less-expensive consumer devices available to address hearing impairment and will they look different from expensive traditional hearing aids?
  • Will the stigma of wearing hearing aids lessen or even go away, so wearing hearing aids will be akin to wearing eyeglasses (in other words, no big deal)?

Less Expensive Options for Hearing Aids

To address that first question, a change is coming for hearing-impaired people in the U.S. thanks to a law signed by President Trump in August that will let consumers purchase hearing aids without going through a licensed audiologist. Non-medical technology companies soon will be able to sell low-cost devices that address mild to moderate hearing impairment and market them as hearing aids.

What we'll see as a result are more products like the Olive, which Korean startup Olive Union touts as a "next-gen hearing aid" costing $100 per ear. Olive aims to provide "affordable hearing for all" and destigmatize hearing aid use with fashion sense. Olives look like you have a piece of jewelry in your ear. (The look is definitely more "in your face" than modern hearing aids which are designed to be nearly invisible.)

The price of traditional hearing aids is a problem: Many people can't afford to spend several thousand dollars on a device not covered by medical insurance or Medicare. For example, my current pair, purchased a couple years ago, cost $6,000.

Lower-cost alternatives promise to put a dent into the problem of people with hearing impairment not using hearing aids. It's estimated that only 20 percent of people with hearing impairment are hearing aid users.

After interviewing a variety of hearing experts for this article, though, I have doubts that fashionable new styles of hearing aids will help much to increase that percentage. With the Olive and HearOne devices, for instance, the look is visible and loud (pardon the pun); it's clear to others that you have something in your ear. That may be a disincentive to some.

A Variety of New Designs for Hearing Aids

Most of the design work in the hearing aid industry continues to be on making the devices smaller and more invisible. People who want serious invisibility might choose something like the Starkey Invisible IIC or Phonak Lyric, which are tiny and fit in the ear canal deep enough that no one can see them. More common is for people to choose behind-the-ear hearing aids, which have a thin wire snaking into the ear and are discrete. (Most new hearing aids these days use this design.)

Stuart Karten, CEO of Karten Design in Los Angeles, has been working on hearing aid design for a decade; his clients include hearing aid manufacturers Starkey and Earlens.

He, too, is skeptical that visible hearing aids, no matter how nice the design, will reduce the stigma that hearing-impaired people feel. What's more likely is that new features and functionality will make hearing aids and assistive devices more attractive, Karten says, not only to the hearing impaired, but also to people with normal hearing.


Beyond Enhanced Hearing

It's great to be able to listen to music or take a phone call through hearing aids — a now common feature offered by traditional hearing aids like the Resound LiNX 3D or HearOne earbuds. Future functionality could be even more fantastic: Imagine if your hearing aid or hearable device offered instant in-ear translation when conversing with someone who speaks another language.

Karten says that in certain situations he will use hearing aids to enhance his hearing and to use their cool new features, even though he has normal hearing.

"I'm seeing more and more people who say they want them — even if they don't need them," Karten notes.

As lower-priced devices offer such opportunities to augment even non-impaired ears, it may become more attractive and normal to wear ear devices. This offers hope that the stigma around wearing an assistive ear device will lessen.

A Stubborn Issue

Still, stigma is not an easy problem to solve. So says Professor Margaret Wallhagen of the University of California-San Francisco, a leading researcher on the topic of stigma and hearing aids.

She thinks ear devices that serve multiple functions could go a long way in bringing societal acceptance of wearing gizmos in, or on, our ears. But this will take time.

It may be, she suggests, that younger people using increasingly sophisticated and useful "hearables" will be the ones eventually turning the tide on reducing the stigma that so many hearing aid users currently experience.

Steve Outing is a media and technology journalist based in the Denver area. He's currently writing a book, Future After 50. Read More
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