Hearing Aids – But Make It Fashion

Hearing aids can be a lot of things to a lot of different people. To some, they are a nuisance or an embarrassment, to others, they are the door to a whole new world. This article will focus on Filipino-Canadian Ruzzelle Gasmen’s own hard-of-hearing journey, and how it has inspired her work. It will also include an exclusive Q&A with Ruzzelle herself!

Ruzelle Gasmen was born from her Ilocano parents in Pangasinan, Philippines. At the age of 4, her parents decided to move to Canada in search of better opportunities and ended up settling down in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC). Ruzzelle has lived and learned in BC ever since, having completed her master’s degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Speech-Language Pathology (SLP). “I just really wanted a job where I could help kids learn and also combine my interest in language and communication. I really like that because I grew up in a multilingual household, like my parents spoke three languages at home, so language is always important to me and I’m really happy that I could have that as part of my career,” she told Philippine Canadian Inquirer (PCI).

It wasn’t until Ruzzelle was in the midst of her studies that she faced her own significant challenges with hearing and communication. At 20 years old, the soon-to-be SLP was diagnosed with hearing loss. Doctors were unsure of the cause and sent her for a series of tests. In the end, she was told the loss would be progressive – meaning over time it may worsen, and she will need to continue following up with doctors.

Due to the cost associated with hearing aids, Ruzzelle went through additional struggles after being diagnosed with hearing loss. After living for almost 6 years with hearing loss and no hearing aids, she experienced feelings of anxiety when going out or hanging with friends – worrying that she might be missing what is being said around her. “If I’m not able to hear everything, I won’t respond or I [will] get really kind of more… I feel more isolated. So there’s that part about hearing loss; it can impact people’s mental health…There’s just a lot of that stuff that goes through your head when you can’t hear everything that everybody is saying, but I think it has taught me a lot of things like self-advocacy and speaking up and trying to figure out how to work through those communication breakdowns when I can’t hear everything,” she stated in her PCI interview.

Once Ruzzelle finally got hers in 2020, she wanted to decorate it in some way but wasn’t sure quite how. Then she came across the ear cuff that Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray wore during the pageant, which features the three stars and the sun’s rays in the Philippine flag (see Figure 6). Ruzzelle wanted to wear one herself but realized it would not fit well with her hearing aids, as she also had to wear glasses and a face mask. Even though she decided against buying the cuff, she kept thinking about it, until she came up with a viable alternative – a customized hearing accessory inspired by Catriona’s cuff (see Figures 5 & 6).

Ruzzelle began by making sketches of her desired style before applying it to different materials she found at home, to see if she could attach the accessory to the device successfully. The first accessory she made took her about 2 hours, but she was happy with the outcome. “It worked out really well, it’s really lightweight and it doesn’t make any noises on my hearing aid,” she said. Originally, Ruzzelle made the accessory for herself and posted it online to share it with others. What she did not expect was the overwhelming response she received. Messages began pouring in from people wanting to purchase one for themselves.

Eventually, Ruzzelle made some more designs (see Figures 9-11) and even collaborated with her friend Raechel from wolfwmnbeads on a hearing aid and earring duo (see Figure 9). This collaborative project was inspired by the national flower of the Philipines, the Sampaguita. In addition to her own design inspiration, customers sometimes request their own ideas. For example, in August a nurse asked about a nurse-themed accessory which Ruzzelle created (see Figure 12), and in October a Canucks fan received a special design as well (see Figure 13).

See below for an exclusive Q&A with Ruzzelle Gasmen!

Q&A With Ruzzelle Gasmen

Before we dive into the Q&A I just wanted to share a little bit about my relationship with Ruzzelle!

Over the past year, I have been working tirelessly to create an informational and welcoming Instagram page for The Sustainable Switch. It is there that I have had the opportunity to connect with so many amazing individuals and businesses across Canada and the globe. In June 2021, I connected with an amazing local Indigenous artist named Raechel Bonomo who owns wlfwmnbeads. Soon after connecting, we also carried out a Q&A, where I had the opportunity to learn more about Raechel, her business, and what it means to her to share her culture and art with the public. It was from Raechel’s account that I found Ruzzelle’s, and I immediately began following her journey in creating these beautiful hearing aid accessories and teaching others about life for the hard-of-hearing.

For the past few months, Ruzzelle and I have enjoyed discussing topics we’re both passionate about, such as education and sustainability, and sharing online content with one another. As individuals who consider themselves lifelong learners, we are always happy to share and receive content that teaches us something new!

However, with both of us being incredibly busy with our own work, it took some time to get this Q&A together – but we are both excited to provide you with these answers!

Q: So, what exactly do you do and where do you work?

A: I work with preschool and school-aged children as a Speech-Language Pathologist, part-time at a school district and part-time in private practice. And every so often, I’m also a Clinical Instructor and Educator with my graduate school’s speech program.

Q: When did you start designing earrings and hearing aid decorations?

A: This was a fun and unexpected journey that started in the late winter/early spring of 2021.

Q: How much work usually goes into each hearing aid accessory you make?

A: It definitely ranges depending on the design and if I need to create a vector image on my computer. For the easier designs and materials, usually an hour or two when I’m just getting started and experimenting with a new accessory, but it gets faster with each one I make. The more complex designs can be several hours spread across multiple days.

Q: What was your experience like, going for those 6 or so years living, learning, and working without hearing aids?

A: It made life a little more difficult, especially as I was training to be a Speech-Language Pathologist. Fortunately, in undergrad and graduate school we learned how to use this software on the computer to visualize the speech signal into something called a spectrogram. It helped me “see” the sounds I had difficulty hearing. Outside of school, I dreaded many social interactions because that’s where I really struggle. I get lost easily in group settings and with the tiniest amounts of background noise. There’s so many more socio-emotional impacts of hearing loss that you don’t really think about when you are able to hear.

Q: Other than the cost associated with hearing aids, were there any other challenges you’ve experienced relating to your hearing that you would like to share?

A: I think one of the biggest things for me was learning how to advocate for myself. I’m very shy and I don’t like to take up space. Speaking up and sharing my communication needs has been a learning curve. It’s getting easier and I feel much more confident.

Q: What would you say the approximate cost of hearing aids are? What is the process like for purchasing them? Easy? Hard?

A: Hearing aids can range from $2000-$8000 for a pair depending on the type and level of technology. And they need to be replaced when they’re at the end of their life, just like cell phones.

For each province/territory the process might differ so it’s always good to check province/territory-specific processes. In my own personal experience as an adult in BC, I went to my university health clinic and got a doctor referral to a private hearing clinic. The hearing test itself was at no cost and the process was easy. There even was a trial period to use the hearing aids before purchasing. Usually, for adults, you don’t actually need a doctor’s referral to get a hearing test at certain clinics so it’s good to check what might be available in your area. The process for young children is a bit different as there are Early Hearing Detection and Intervention programs.

Q: Do you work with any charities or organizations you would like to highlight?

A: In BC, there’s a non-profit organization called Wavefront Centre for Communication Accessibility and they have a program called the Lend an Ear program that provides refurbished hearing aids to British Columbians who can’t afford hearing aids. While shopping for art supplies, the cashier had asked what I was making and I talked about the hearing aid accessories and how I donated some of the profits to the program. They mentioned that their dad actually donated his old hearing aids to the Lend an Ear program. It was so heartwarming to know there are kind people out there trying to fill in the gaps in our healthcare system. I also love the fact that there are organizations looking at sustainably reusing and refurbishing hearing technology.

Q: Are there any facts relating to your creations, work, or hard of hearing in general you want people to know?

A: During graduate school, I remembered this one guest lecture from Janet Jamieson of UBC, about the impacts of hearing loss on children. She had mentioned that in the middle school years, children are consolidating parts of their identities and want to be more like their peers. For hard-of-hearing children that might mean rejecting the things that make them visibly different, so their hearing aids. That just breaks my heart because hearing aids can be powerful tools to help people access spoken language.

This always stuck with me. I resonated with that as an immigrant settler who grew up wanting to fit in very early on in my life. As an adult, I only recently started to embrace where I came from and what made me different and uniquely me. That really coincided with me making the hearing aid accessories. Some of the first accessories I made drew from my Filipino heritage.

It has been a transformative time in my life and an absolute privilege to make these beautiful hearing aid accessories for children and adults alike. I hope it gives people pride in their differences and starts positive conversations about hearing health.

To see more of Ruzzelle’s beautiful pieces, see her Instagram account at @puzzlewithanr.

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