When people see the device on Jim Haniacek's ear, they correctly assume that it's connected to his cell phone. What they don't know is that it's connected to his hearing aids too.
"It does look like a Bluetooth," said the 26-year-old private investigator from Chicago. "No one believes I have hearing aids."
That he now has to convince people that he has hereditary hearing loss comes as a relief. He was concerned about the stigma of wearing hearing aids after he was diagnosed about a year ago.
"I kind of saw it as a disability. But I talked to other people with hearing aids, and it's really not," he said.
And with so many people without hearing loss walking around with cell phone appendages clasped to their ears, it has made it easy for hearing-aid users to blend in with the rest of society.
"We've actually heard from some of our patients that people are asking them what type of Bluetooth device they have," said Alan Micco, an otolaryngologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "Hearing-aid companies have really gotten progressive with technology."
The accessory Haniacek wears is called ELI and comes from Starkey Laboratories, which is the pioneer among Bluetooth hearing-aid gear. It costs about $400 and was named a Time Magazine Invention of the Year in 2005. Haniacek's hearing aids are made by Phonak. (A good pair of hearing aids runs about $2,000.)
Some of Starkey's competitors also are blazing trails in their own way to evolve in the 21st century. GN ReSound's Pulse design is called the Plug 'N' Play for the way it's rechargeable, just like a cell phone. Some hearing aids match a person's hair color to blend in. And Oticon's Delta is a tiny, triangle-shaped device that comes in a variety of colors to make a bold fashion statement.
"I can only describe Delta as the iMac of hearing aids, in terms of available colors and size," said Matt Daigle, spokesman for the American Academy of Otolaryngology.
"Your grandpa's old, behind-the-ear hearing aid has been transformed into a device a quarter of the size it used to be," said Micco, who said he sometimes has to ask patients to remove a Bluetooth device so he can examine them; they forget they're wearing them.
Though he's not one of Micco's patients, Mark Frueh, 46, an environmental engineer from Naperville, Ill., said he knows that feeling -- and he doesn't even have a Bluetooth. He has been wearing Bernafon SwissEar hearing aids for less than a month after his hereditary tinnitus problem was discovered.
"I forget I have them in my ears," he said. "My little worry is that I'm going to jump into the pool with them in."
The aids are so small, he added, that he has to be careful when he takes his shirt off not to lose them.
Both Bluetooths and the size of the aids have helped reduce the stigma of wearing hearing aids for younger users, said Joseph Tullo, who runs the hearing center at Costco in Oak Brook, Ill.
"Many of the older generation have had stigma issues. They felt this was going to make them look older; they'd have to admit they have another problem with themselves. It seems like the younger generation is more open to acquiring health," he said.
Besides their size, the sophistication of today's computerized hearing enhancements go beyond the stereotypical image of a whistling device that merely amplifies sound, Frueh said.
"The hearing aids put a little white noise above that frequency to help wipe out the tinnitus and amplify frequencies where I have hearing loss," he said. "It's made a huge difference for me, especially over the Christmas holidays. Normally I tried to avoid it when I got in a room with four or five people because it was tough to pick out a single voice. Now I pretty much hear and understand everybody."
The clear tube that goes in his ear is about one-eighth of an inch thick; the amplifier behind his ear is nearly invisible, he said.
"I usually have to point out that I'm wearing hearing aids," he said.
If his hearing changes, no problem, he said. It's not as though he'll have to shell out another $2,000 for brand-new aids, he said.
"They can easily adjust it. They put a new audio file of the hearing chart in the computer and change the program. It's quite a nice deal."
Haniacek said his ELI Bluetooth involves more than cell phone convenience. Before, he had to take out his hearing aids when his cell phone rang, and he was worried about developing an infection from handling them so often and getting them dirty, especially in his previous job as an emergency medical technician.
Though his hearing loss contributed to his choice to change careers, he said the support of his fiance, Becky Druszkowski, has made all the difference in the world. His confidence, which had gotten shaky when he had a hard time hearing everyone, is back. He is taking acting lessons, and he and Becky even took a sign-language class together.
"I want to be there for him; I want to support him," Druszkowski said. "The class was really good for him. The teacher told him you don't have to look at it like a disability."
She said she and Haniacek are very competitive with each other and will tease one another with shouts of "I win" and "You lose." So they learned the signs for those jokes too.
"We try," Druszkowski said, "to make it fun."
Patrick Campert writes for the Chicago Tribune.
For more information, go to the Better Hearing Institute at betterhearing.org and the Hearing Exchange at hearingexchange.com.