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    Posted February 26, 2013 by
    Thornton, Colorado
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    Marvel misguided in hearing aid poster campaign

    Two Marvel comic artists’ recent kindness to a young deaf boy is heartwarming (http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/25/us/hearing-impaired-boy-superhero/index.html?hpt=hp_bn1). Their gift of two comic book covers depicting a superhero, Avenger Blue Ear, whose blue earpiece confers on him superpowers, was thoughtful and generous and appropriate to the boy’s specific situation.

    However, these artists and Marvel have – perhaps unwittingly – stepped into a minefield by working with a hearing aid manufacturer on a marketing campaign that, by extrapolating an individual’s circumstances and applying it indiscriminately, devalues a segment of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

    Marvel editor Bill Rosemann and artists Manny Mederos and Nelson Ribeiro have teamed with Phonak to create a poster that features Iron Man and the message “that kids who use hearing aids are just like him because ‘they are using technology to be their best self.’”

    While the effort to destigmatize children who rely on hearing aids is laudable, because many of these children suffer relentless teasing from their peers for their differences, the poster’s message is deeply offensive and hurtful to those who gain little to no benefit from hearing aids. It dismisses the reality that Phonak’s technology does not always succeed in restoring hearing or achieving auditory comprehension for its users. And it implies that those who choose to or cannot use hearing aids are failing to be their best selves and are less than whole human beings in their own right.

    I am a former Phonak user who derived no benefit from the company’s products. I have profound hearing loss, which means I can’t hear at all. While my parents chose to use Total Communication – an approach that blends hearing aids, speech and auditory therapy, and Signing Exact English – I was never able to differentiate sounds or understand speech.

    In elementary school, I was forced to go to auditory therapy to learn how to use my bilateral hearing aids. In a typical session, the therapist would place three cards in front of me that depicted images such as a man, a woman, and a child. She would then play an audio recording and ask me to match the sound to the image – such as whether the voice was a male, a female, or a child. Even with my hearing aids tuned to optimal levels and set at the highest tolerable volume, I could not tell the difference or hear more than a muted hum. I resorted to guessing based on probabilities: The last one was a man, so this one must be a woman or a child. The therapist would keep track of my answers, and at the end of each session tell me how I did. I always failed. I would be sent back to the audiologist for tweaks to my hearing aids, and then referred back to therapy in an endless cycle of – by medical professionals’ standards – failure.

    This endless repetition of failure, even as I tried my hardest to please the adults in my life, took a toll on my self esteem. It was only after adults stopped subjecting me to physically impossible tasks, and after I dealt with the subsequent feelings of shame, disappointment and self-hatred for my failures and shortcomings, that I was able to come to terms with my deafness and focus on areas in which I could truly excel. Free of these therapy sessions, in high school I was able to devote myself to being an all-A’s honors/Advanced Placement student and a competitive dressage rider.

    There are numerous accounts like mine, of children for whom hearing aids did not work, or work perfectly, for whatever physical reason, and who still grew up to be successful professionals - lawyers, doctors, university faculty and presidents, and chief executive officers. Many of them have discarded these ineffective symbols of society-imposed normalization in favor of American Sign Language. However, Phonak and Marvel’s posters tell us that despite our successes, because our type or degree of hearing loss prevents us from fully benefiting from Phonak's technology, we are “failing to be our best selves.”

    Even more offensively, the poster’s use of Iron Man sends the message that hearing loss is analogous to a fatal condition. Tony Stark’s technology enables him to survive what would have been a fatal chest injury, and he continues to use this technology to battle evil. On the other hand, hearing loss is not a life-threatening condition, and hearing aids are not a life-saving technology. They are a valuable tool – for the appropriate candidates. Even when they don’t work, deaf children still live and thrive.

    Phonak’s motives in creating and disseminating this poster, with its message that a child can be normal and maximize his or her potential only by using Phonak’s technology, are suspect because the company has a significant financial motivation to recruit all the patients it can, regardless of whether they are optimal candidates.

    Phonak is part of Sonova Holding Group, a Swiss company that brings in more than $2 billion in annual revenue. Hearing aids and other technology such as cochlear implants are a lucrative industry globally and in the United States. Doctors and audiologists in turn receive perks from these corporations and companies, and all these stakeholders have little incentive to be fully transparent with parents about the technology’s success rates and effectiveness and that alternatives or supplemental strategies exist. In too many cases, the end product is a painful combination of parents’ disappointment and grief when the hearing aids fail to work as promised, and children’s damaged esteem and feelings of failure, abnormality, of being irreparably broken.

    Phonak and Marvel’s insensitive and tactless poster rubs salt into these wounds, and in the case of new patients and their families, encourages false hope where a cautious balance of realism is more appropriate.

    Marvel should reconsider its participation in this marketing campaign and seek a more positive, nuanced strategy for messaging directed at the American deaf and hard of hearing community – as a diverse whole.
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