Blue Bloods and Hearing Aids

FINALLY, a new Blue Bloods is on tonight! Silly March Madness kept pre-empting it and I’m looking forward to catching up with my good friends, the Reagans. Now, we need to talk about the last new episode (No Regrets), which aired three weeks ago! Not that I’ve been counting or anything. I know it seems a bit of a moot point to discuss an episode that aired almost a month ago, but I’ve been meaning to chat with you guys about it since it featured an actor wearing hearing aids.

Pete Seabrook (played by Brian Kerwin) was an old buddy of Frank’s, back in town looking for a job. He gave Frank this whole song and dance about being retired from the space shuttle program, looking for a new career in New York and his family staying behind in Texas while he gets things sorted out. As it turned out, he had a drinking problem that drove him away from his wife and daughter away years ago and his wife was actually in New York to try to track him down. Frank found Pete’s wife, they reunited and (presumably) lived happily ever after.

What was interesting about Pete is that he clearly had some kind of hearing loss; there were several times his head was turned so that his hearing aids were prominent, or the camera angle came in at the back of his head to show the BTEs. But neither Pete nor Frank ever mentioned the hearing loss. Pete never asked Frank to repeat himself. We never learned how he lost his hearing – was it a result of flying jet planes? Was it part of the reason he’s out of a job? Frank never asked, so we were left to assume that he… didn’t notice? Already knew about it? So many questions, so few answers.

(Brian Kerwin actually does wear hearing aids in real life. I had a brief Twitter chat with Arlene Romoff (@aromoff) about the episode and she kindly pointed me to CHC’s interview with Mr. Kerwin – it’s worth a read!)

I was happy to see a character wearing hearing aids on a major network TV show. I am hard of hearing myself, and wear two hearing aids. I’ve been through phases where I tried to identify myself as deaf, or even culturally Deaf, and always walked away feeling incomplete. That isn’t all I am. Nowadays I get a little squirmy when I try to identify myself solely by my hearing loss, so I was grateful to see Pete portrayed as a person, a friend, a husband, a father… who just happened to be wearing hearing aids. I liked that it wasn’t a big deal, that the people around him were more interested in him and not just his hearing aids. Pete was just a guy, no better or worse, more whole or more broken than anyone else. The message I got from Blue Bloods is that people with hearing loss are just that… people. 

I am grateful – even indebted – to people like Marlee Matlin, Deanne Bray (remember Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye?), or more recently, the cast of Switched at Birth, for bringing sign language and other tricks of the deaf/hard of hearing trade (like lip reading), into the public consciousness. More people than ever before know basic signs and that lip reading is an awesome superpower to have. Deafness and Deaf Culture are less scary and more approachable – even cool (it’s not uncommon for people to ask me, with a twinge of envy, methinks: Can you teach me to swear in sign language? Can you eavesdrop on that couple over there?).

However, sign language and reading lips are just one part of hearing loss. There are millions more who prefer to communicate with their own voices, can understand others without having to read lips, may or may not sign, may or may not use a regular phone, who do not consider themselves deaf or Deaf and may be more comfortable among their hearing or fellow hard of hearing friends and family. I would posit that while deafness and even Deaf Culture is becoming more familiar to the general public, being hard of hearing is not. We tend to be an all-or-nothing society, don’t we? Either you sign or you don’t. You read lips or you don’t. You wear hearing aids/cochlear implants or you don’t. You hear perfectly or not at all. There’s not a lot of understanding (yet) for those of us that fall in the middle of the two extremes.

So for that reason, I wish Blue Bloods had handled Pete’s hearing loss more realistically, but still unobtrusively. Maybe Pete could have asked Frank to repeat or rephrase himself once or twice. Perhaps he could have said, “Man, this bar is too loud, can we go somewhere else? I’m having a hard time filtering out the background noise.” Could he have mentioned in passing how he lost his hearing? “Yeah, I really wish I’d taken better care of my ears and used the earplugs the military provided more often.” And how awesome would it have been to see Pete quickly change a battery in one of his hearing aids? These are gentle, natural ways that hearing loss is part of my life and I wish Blue Bloods had taken the opportunity to educate its audience about what it’s like to be hard of hearing.

Did you watch No Regrets? What did you think of Pete’s hearing loss? How should hearing loss be handled on TV?
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3 thoughts on “Blue Bloods and Hearing Aids

  1. They might have just been trying to normalize socializing and working with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. My position comes from watching LOTS of Sesame Street. They ALWAYS include children of different abilities. Sometimes they talk about it, sometimes they just let them be kids without pointing out the difference. It's good both ways.

  2. That's true, there are definitely benefits to just including people of varying abilities without shining a huge spotlight on our differences. We ARE all just people after all!

  3. Hi Lucy! I don't watch Blue Bloods, but I do follow CSI New York, which dedicated an entire episode (Silent Night) about different approaches to hearing loss. Marlee Matlin was actually featured in that episode as the mother of a murder victim. The entire family was deaf and they relied on sign language, lip reading, vibrations and other senses to communicate. The criminal in the episode was also deaf and wore a hearing aid, and was actually the boyfriend of the victim. As someone on the outside, I think they handled it well, showing the different views and approaches people have on hearing loss.

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