Abstract: Managing Hearing Loss Stigma: Perceptions of and Responses to Stigmatizing Attitudes & Behaviors

◆ Brittany N. Beckner, University of Dayton
◆ Donald W. Helme, University of Kentucky

According to Goffman (1963), stigma results from society’s categorization of an individual, based on a negative evaluation of his or her differences, that identifies such individual as weak, dangerous, bad, or not normal. Attributes that may cause societal devaluation include disabilities given that individuals with disabilities, such as hearing loss, do not fit into the able-bodied mindset that is prevalent in U.S. culture (Davis, 2005). The differences in this population’s attributes result in a negative stereotype when society labels individuals with disabilities as “less than human” or as having a ‘dis’ability (Braithwaite, 1991; Goffman, 1963). Studying this population and the effects stigma may have on communication is essential given that 12.8% of the U.S. population reports having a disability (Kraus et al., 2018). Moreover, Meisenbach (2010) argues that understanding stigma from the perceptions of stigmatized individuals themselves is important to further understanding of identity formation and stigma management theorizing. Thus, this study attempts to understand how individuals with hearing loss, as one population of individuals with disabilities, perceive and experience stigma surrounding hearing loss as well as how they choose to respond to such stigma. As a hard of hearing individual, the primary researcher fit into the population being studied and was able to engage in interactive interviews with thirty participants (Ellis et al., 1997). This differentiates this study from much of the current disability research given that much of this research is conducted from an able-bodied perspective (Matthews & Harrington, 2000). The audio-recorded interviews were transcribed and analyzed using open and axial coding to identify themes across the interviews, which were co-coded and member-checked in order to ensure trustworthiness (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). The resulting themes included five major types of stigma or stigmatizing attitudes surrounding hearing loss (RQ1) – feelings of sorry or pity, not feeling worth others’ time, being labeled as ‘not normal’, the perception that hearing loss limits capabilities and intelligence, and the idea that hearing loss is different from other types of disabilities. These results support other interdisciplinary findings on individuals with disabilities that highlight that this population often experiences feelings of inferiority (Cherney, 1999; Levy, 2002), isolation (Davis, 2007; Hole, 2007; Wright & Rains, 2013), and being defined by their disability alone (Braithewaite, 1991; Goffman, 1963). Additionally, participants identified six types of responses they typically engage in when confronted with stigma (RQ2) – avoiding/ignoring, asserting oneself, viewing it as an education opportunity, seeing stigma as the other person’s problem, having a positive attitude, and making stigma a positive thing (turning it around to their advantage). These responses further support various coping mechanisms (Martin et al., 2002; Shih, 2004), disclosure strategies (Charmaz, 1991), and reactions to stigma (Crocker et al., 1998; Gagne et al., 2009; Major & O’Brien, 2005; Meisenbach, 2010; Southall et al., 2010; Steele et al., 2002) identified in across literature examining stigma in multiple disciplines.