Hearing as a Disability

On Monday, one of the iSchool professors associated with the iAccess project (which is part of the Information School’s research arm) came in to IMT 580 – Management of Information Organizations and administered a survey on the design of web sites for accessibility by people with disabilities.  Basically, the project they’re working on assesses why web sites are not designed for people with disabilities and what cultural norms or technical information might influence the decision to not design web sites with accessibility in mind.

Aside from the sheer need for this sort of research to be done (which I consider to be a bit of a gap in existing information about web site design), this got me thinking about my own hearing.  One of the questions on the survey explicitly asked whether I, as the survey taker, had a disability that significantly affected my ability to use the Internet and its resources.  I checked “no”, but still indicated that I had a hearing impairment in the section for people who checked “yes”.

Is this a technically accurate representation of my ability to use Internet resources?  Well, that would greatly depend on what type of resource we’re talking about.  If we’re talking about everyday Web usage or IM, the answer is most definitively “no”, since I rely on these methods extensively for keeping touch with friends and family.  However, if you talk about voice applications like Skype or Ventrilo, then the answer is, actually a little surprisingly, still “no” (although I don’t use Skype).  For those unaware, I have a severe discomfort (some might call it a “crippling fear”) with telephones.  To put it succinctly, I avoid them like the plague, and there are a variety of reasons of that, but the largest one is probably my fear of not being able to properly respond to or follow what’s going on in the conversation.  It is, to some extent, also a technical limitation, since not all phones are designed for hearing aid use.

But why the difference?  The phone involves voice interaction just as much as any voice chat application out there.  My opinion is that there are at least two technological factor here: first, as it stands, I have far more flexibility with sound adjustment and tuning with computer volume, speakers, and headphones than I do with phones (including those with speakerphone abilities).  Second – and I consider this key – I’m not limited to hearing with only one ear (again, with the exception of speakerphones, but this depends on the speakerphone having good sound quality to begin with).

This survey got me thinking about what it means to classify a hearing impairment as a disability.  I have never regarded it as a disability, though I have called it a disability in cases where it benefited me to do so in the form of additional assistance.  I also have gotten out of the habit of calling it a “hearing impairment”, since, as my father rightly pointed out long ago, that lumps me in with a category of people with far more severe problems than I actually can attest to having.  I simply say that “I hear hearing aids”, and that because of that, “I am very uncomfortable with phone usage” – there is nothing wrong with that statement, since it happens to be a fact of my life.  I have continually had people who didn’t even notice that I wear hearing aids react with shock or amazement when they finally noticed.  My own parents have been known to forget that I hear hearing aids!

So is it a disability that limits quality of life?  No.  Is it a disability that limits my usage of the Internet?  No (it actually increases it).  Is it a disability?  Not the way I approach it, but it, as with everything else in life, is not without its frustrations.