Thirty-nine years ago, I was born three months premature, weighing one and a half pounds. Over the next several months, I remained in the ICU, struggling to learn to breathe, with alarms going off as often as 30 times an hour alerting nurses that I was in trouble. I flatlined and came back to life several times. Each minute was a fight to survive.
I consider myself lucky. I had strong parents to hold my tiny hands through it all. And I was surrounded by some of the best doctors in the field who made sure I had the best chance to survive. And I did. After months of fighting, I was finally able to go home. I went on to live a very healthy childhood with one side effect: at two and a half years old, I was diagnosed with severe hearing loss. The diagnosis would have a serious impact on my life’s journey over the next 39 years.
Can you hear me now?
With my hearing loss, I had to learn how to adapt to a noise-driven world by learning how to read lips to communicate and connect with others. It was a frustrating and challenging process for me, one which took many years to perfect. I constantly felt left out and wasn’t able to participate in social activities with my peers because I couldn’t hear properly. I worked hard to become aware of my environment and learned to be patient with myself and others.
But unlike many other people with hearing loss, I was fortunate to have access to hearing aid technology that helped me to hear better and communicate with others, both personally and professionally. My hearing aids instantly became my lifeline to the world, and I depended on them to connect with people. However, they came at a hefty price: $5,000 each, and they weren’t covered by insurance. For ten years, I suffered from wearing one hearing aid because I couldn’t afford a second one. At one point, I was forced to decide between paying my rent or buying new hearing aids. That experience set me back financially three years.
How my hearing loss became my greatest strength
The challenges I’ve faced, along with the skills I’ve learned in response to those experiences, have inspired me to help others with hearing loss and to change the perception of what living with hearing loss means. Something as essential as hearing aids—which can cost more than $5,000 dollars for a basic model—should be as accessible as a smartphone.
People in the hearing health community deserve to hear better without worrying about the social stigma associated with assistive hearing devices. The personal and heartbreaking stories they’ve shared with me about their struggles accessing affordable technology fuel my passion for change. This lead me to Capitol Hill to support Senator Warren’s team in advocating for the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, and on August 18, 2017 history was made when the President signed the bill into law. Now hearing aids will become more accessible and affordable than ever. The new law will help reduce regulations and open up the market so that prices can drop and increase options for consumers.
For the last two decades, I’ve been advocating for change to accessible hearing solutions. As an executive leader in consumer electronics and as a Board member of the Hearing Loss Association of America, Consumer Technology Association Foundation, and Deaf Kids Code - I’ve been advocating for legislative change. During my two years at Doppler Labs as Vice President of Advocacy and Accessibility, my efforts to took my voice and the voice of millions to share our passion for change in hearing healthcare access.
Whether it’s to save a premature baby in a hospital, or to connect people who otherwise wouldn’t have the necessary tools to embrace the world around them, technology can save and change lives. As that featherweight baby in the ICU, who has gone on to lead a successful career and enriching life—in spite of my severe hearing loss—I’m the living proof. Thirty-nine years ago, with the help of my community, I won my fight to survive. Today, I continue to fight. And each day, I’m more hopeful that we’re closer to creating new opportunities that will empower people in my community to live a better life. Because when that happens, everyone benefits.
Catch KR Liu's tech talk on Day 1 of Women of Silicon Valley as she explains how technology will soon disrupt the hearing health market.
To see what else is on, check out the full agenda.