Ever seen a film, TV show, or play where a character wears hearing aids, but his hearing ability isn’t a plot device?

On Friday, March 15, 2013, watch Brian Kerwin guest star in an episode of CBS’ NYC-based cop drama Blue Bloods opposite Tom Selleck. He’s wearing his real-life hearing aids on screen “in all their glory,” Kerwin told us. “I couldn’t have been happier. I was able to hear WTH Tom was saying to me!” And the apparent hearing loss of the former-astronaut character he plays isn’t part of the storyline – or even mentioned at all.

Mr. Kerwin is familiar from films like The Help and 27 Dresses, appearances in TV series including Elementary, Desperate Housewives, and Nip/Tuck, and as Charlie Banks from 2007 – 2011 on daytime drama One Life to Live. A Broadway veteran as well, he was in the cast of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County.

He sees Dr. Ellen Lafargue, Director of CHC’s Shelley and Steven Einhorn Audiology Center, to take care of his hearing and his hearing technology.

For me, an actor so thrilled about showing his real-life hearing aids on TV is a hero. I’m CHC’s blogger and a longtime hearing aid wearer on a crusade against the stigma that hearing technology often carries. Kerwin agreed to a follow-up chat with me about his experience on Blue Bloods.

 

On-Screen Hearing Technology

It’s been Kerwin’s habit to tell producers and directors during auditions and rehearsals that he’s fine to take off his hearing aids just before shooting. After purchasing his first pair in 2007, he often “got a feeling from the producer that it was less than desirable” to have them in his scenes, and until now, directors and producers have uniformly agreed with his offer to remove them.

But right before filming a scene with Kerwin and Tom Selleck, Blue Blood director Dave Barrett jumped on the idea of keeping them in: “I love them! Wear ‘em. They make you look human!”

Kerwin was touched. He calls Barrett’s words “one of the nicest things I ever heard anyone say.”

It’s easy to imagine that interaction meaning something to Kerwin, an endearingly warm and open guy. Born in Chicago and a long-time Manhattan-dweller, his speech is animated, with a friendly, casual almost-drawl.

So Why Does Almost No One On TV Have Hearing Loss?

Naturally, Kerwin told me, the in-or-out decision on the aids will always be up to the directors and producers (they wouldn’t quite work in an 18th century period piece, you know?). Even set in present-day, a character wearing hearing aids arouses a certain viewer expectation of a reason why. Is he a spy with a wire? Does she have a disease she isn’t letting on about? If he’s elderly, he might be an old oblivious buffoon squawking “What?!” and other out-of-touch one-liners. If she’s a kid, odds are good for an upcoming bullying scene.

But Kerwin tells me he’s decided to change his approach from now on. Whenever it makes sense, he’ll ask the creative direction of future projects to consider that the actor and his character could have their hearing technology in common – for no other reason than that hearing loss is common. (More common than you might think: one in three people over sixty have a hearing loss.)

What’s It Been Like For Kerwin Working Without Hearing Aids?

As for this writer and my hearing aids, I wouldn’t take it too well if a boss told me I couldn’t wear them in a meeting. Without them, I would barely catch a thing and sound unassertive and dimwitted. I wanted to know what sort of struggles a hard of hearing actor faces at work sans-hearing aids.

He pointed out that by the time the production is filming or on stage and his hearing aids are out, he’s already got his dialogue and cues down. Makes sense: if you knew exactly what everyone was supposed to say, listening and understanding would be less crucial.

That doesn’t mean he never misses a direction or update, has misunderstandings that leave everyone confused, or experiences the exhaustion of straining to hear. With his hearing aids out, he’ll still get his lines, but what’s going on between cuts involves a lot more guesswork.

Rehearsing for August: Osage County was especially taxing for him. Most hearing aid wearers know water as their aids’ Public Enemy #1. Since the play takes place during a hot, Deep South summer, the cast was sprayed down constantly to achieve a sweat-drenched looked. “I couldn’t wear ‘em at all,” Kerwin says; “Couldn’t keep the things dry!”

Friends Don’t Let Friends Go To Just Any Audiologist

Far and away, however, Kerwin is a happy hearing aid wearer who can’t imagine life without them anymore. Fellow actor and One Life to Live star Kassie DePaiva, who’s a member of CHC’s Board of Directors, referred him to us. “It’s not that I mean to go around saying, ‘My God, she changed my life!'” he says about DePaiva, pantomiming ultra dramatic gusto. “But she did. It was never the same – she really did. Made a huge impact.”

He’s got kind words for his audiologist, Dr. Lafargue, too. He’s been through a few pairs of hearing aids, including a set that did not work for him, an experience many of us have had. He was still within the timeframe to return them, and like most people who work with a great audiologist and give themselves the time they need to adjust to digital aids, he had the people and eventually the right technology to change his life.

How To Fight Hearing Aid Stigma

Brian Kerwin doesn’t quite understand the resistance to hearing aids: “we’re living in age when so many people have so many things in their ears all the time,” he notes, meaning Bluetooth devices and headphones, “it shouldn’t be seen as that strange.”

But even if he can’t understand it, he did experience it. The average amount of time people go after knowing they have a hearing problem to getting hearing aids is seven years (!). Kerwin fit that “procrastination period” trend perfectly, getting his first set that many years after a hearing test initially indicated a loss.

He’s also partial to non-flesh tone hearing aid casing. “Sure, it’s nice for them to be discreet. But when I see them the typical beige color, almost like prosthetic plastic, I think it looks like an apology for wearing them.” Kerwin’s current aids are a sleek grey and white, and his last were a stately black and metallic silver.

And why shouldn’t hearing aids be attractive and fashionable? Kerwin got me pretty fired up at this point. Personally, I have bronze Gucci eyeglass frames with bling at the temple, but my hearing aids look like fleshy lumps stuck in my ears (though they are pretty subtle).

Kerwin’s proclivity to talk about his hearing aids loudly and positively does make an impact. “Every time I mention them, more people say back, ‘Yeah, I really need to get them, too,'” he reports. “So amazing about hearing aids. People come out of the closet with it, like cancer, alcoholism. Soon as you say ‘I’ve got it,’ everyone else comes out with it. I say, ‘Get em, dude.’”

Hearing Aids In Entertainment

He thinks (and I agree) that seeing hearing aids on actors as just a normal thing that some people wear, as well as on entertainers and celebrities off-set, could promote the viral effect.

David Mamet is one of America’s best playwrights, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a man known for a certain level of brashness.

Kerwin recalls sitting behind him in the theater on the closing night of Mamet’s play Race. Mamet typically keeps his hair in a buzz cut, and according to Kerwin, very visible behind his ears were “candy apple colored hearing aids. It was like he was saying, ‘F*&% you! I’m wearing hearing aids. If you don’t like it, go away.'” (I can’t verify whether or not Mamet is rocking bold ear gear, but it’s been said he believes he suffered hearing loss as a kid from target shooting. Which is interesting given a recent reason he’s been in the news – for strongly opposing gun control.)

Imagine if we saw the occasional character on our favorite shows with a no-questions-asked hearing loss. David Mamet’s daughter, Zosia Mamet, plays hyper-alert and hilarious Shoshanna on HBO’s latest hit series Girls. I can’t help but muse… what if she wore hearing aids, just because. I bet they’d be fuchsia or purple. Would viewers wonder why she wore them, or see her as less cool or fashionable? Would the show’s writers resist the temptation to make them the butt of a joke, perhaps with Shoshanna losing them during a night out for a bewildered performance navigating NYC’s loud and fast 20-something, late hours party circuit?

Hearing Aids In Everyday Life

Though he’s an entertainer with a super-positive message about hearing aids, Brian is open about the harsher side of hearing loss too. He’s a family guy, married with three teenagers living in New York City. The cost of hearing aids, which are rarely covered by insurance, is a barrier not lost on him.

He’s moved by the message of a well-received New York Times blog post by Jane E. Brody published last year about the more insidious effects of losing your hearing, like severe social isolation and the connection between hearing loss and dementia.

“Hearing loss was a pervasive melancholy. Everyone tells a joke and I’m not hearing it, a line I didn’t know what was said. Melancholy is a side effect of not being able to hear… feeling isolated and left out,” Brian told me, his voice dropping for the first time.

Now You Don’t See Them, Someday You Will?

Don’t forget to tune in for Blue Bloods this Friday, March 15 at 10 pm Eastern on CBS for Brian Kerwin’s guest starring episode. It’s the on-screen debut of his white and silver hearing aids, and I hope they’ll make other appearances soon!

Keep your eyes out for hearing aids in pop culture and entertainment, and let us know what you see. Let’s keep talking about hearing loss and hearing technology til we squash the stigma.

And if you’re one of those people stuck in the procrastination period, knowing you need hearing help but something’s holding you back? Take Brian’s advice and Get ‘em, dude.

Best of luck to Brian from CHC. We’re thankful for his friendship and his openness.