In a way, suffering from hearing loss is worse than many other physical ailments because, for one, it’s not particularly visible.
In fact, the hard-of-hearing refer to it as the invisible disability, Yat Li, communications and marketing manager with the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (WIDHH), said.
“Growing up in the ’90s, I was very self-conscious,” Li said. “I had lots of problems, without wearing hearing aids I am not able to function normally.”
He was born in Hong Kong with microtia — tiny ears, one of about 40,000 born every year with the condition worldwide — and his family moved to Coquitlam when Li was five.
There was practically no Chinese culture in Coquitlam then, Li didn’t speak English well (nor, for that matter, did he speak Cantonese well). It’s hard to learn to speak when you have profound hearing loss.
About 157,000 people report being deaf or hard-of-hearing in B.C., according to WIDHH figures. Hearing loss affects social skills, learning and mental health.
“Many of us take our ability to communicate for granted, but the ability to speak, hear and be heard is much more vital to our everyday lives than most of us realize,” says Speech-Language & Audiology Canada. “For those who have difficulty communicating, everyday interactions can pose significant challenges.
“A communication disorder may prevent an individual from performing well at work, asking for help, hearing instructions at school or even saying. ‘I love you’.”
And whereas poor eyesight is corrected by something that’s become a fashion accessory — eyeglasses — hearing aids don’t enjoy the same panache.
Li has prosthetic ears (they look great). The ears are attached magnetically to small posts inserted into his skull, sitting where his tiny biological ears used to be. He had the surgery to install them when he was 21 by Vancouver doctor Jack Zolty at the Realistic Prosthetic Studio. The procedure cost $5,000, as did each ear, a cost not borne by the Medical Services Plan because he wasn’t considered deaf enough.
Li can swim with his ears on. He takes them off at night. And the hearing aid is hidden behind his right, attachable ear.
Growing up, Li wore his hair long in embarrassment, classmates made fun of him. He was an ethnic minority, he was small, he had those tiny ears, he was easy to pick on. Even today, folks who should probably know better make jokes at his expense: Things like, when it’s raining, cautioning Li not to get electrocuted.
“It’s funny to them, I guess, it’s not funny to me,” he said.
Li worked in marketing in the hotel industry up to 18 months ago when he got tired of hiding his hearing loss, tired of faking it like he was “ordinary.” He was scared people would look at him differently, feel he was weak if they knew the truth.
“It took me a long time of trying to live with who I am and what I am. I’ve only become open to sharing myself, sharing who I am, recently,” the 30-year-old Li said.
Besides his work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing institute, which by the way isn’t government funded but that relies on charitable donations for its work and to pay for its staff of 40 or so, Li markets his Acoustic Wear line, clothing with sayings such as ‘Pardon Me?’ and ‘Hear I Stand’.
And, in his quest to be an inspiration for others, he addresses conferences around the globe.
“I want others to feel empowered and inspired and motivated by someone who went through what I faced, because I did not think I would be here right now,” Lee said.
“For parents, I want you to know you can love your kid with no barriers. You know the cards you’ve been dealt is not the perfect hand. It’s about how you play them. Show affection to your kids, love them for who they are. That’s when they’ll realize, ‘Hey, it’s OK to be me.’ ”
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