When people with hearing loss gather together—like 1500 of them—you’d think it would be noisy. Loud voices talking over each other, yelling what?! or pardon?!
In some ways, however, we are a quieter crowd than an equivalent number of hearing people. If more than one person talks at a time, we don’t understand anybody, so we generally honor the one-speaker rule. And some people don’t speak much at all because they’re bluffing throughout the conversation. Perhaps they’ve never accepted the facts that they have the right to participate, that it’s OK to ask for repeats, and that they must let others know what they need in order to hear or understand. Otherwise they are consigning ourselves to the black hole of non-communication.
Last week, 1500 people with hearing loss from 22 countries gathered in Washington, DC for the joint convention of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) and the International Federation of Hard of Hearing People (IFHOH). It was the event on the annual hearing loss calendar for HoHs (aka hard of hearing people).
For a few hundred attendees, it was the first time they connected with others who have hearing loss. The ‘newbies’ are easy to spot—they’re the gobsmacked ones with glistening eyes: “OMG, these are my people! They understand!” Powerful, life-changing stuff.
In this, the world’s most accessible environment, the plenaries, workshops and even social events were captioned, looped and amplified. But the personal conversations required a bit more work, and at the convention’s opening ceremonies, I explained a few ground rules of communication when yer talkin’ to a HoH:
We don’t all speak the same language. Most of us do not use sign. But what we all do is communicate and our goal must be to do that better. Here we are, wired with technology that receives and sends signals. We write stuff down and read anything with words on it—screens with captioning, people’s lips, name badges. We say pardon a thousand times a day.
But you have to let people know you are talking to them! And that can be kind of hard, for hard of hearing people. Get their attention, maybe with a little wave and a big smile, to let them know that you come in peace.
Have your name badge at a readable level at your body, because if we don’t quite get your name when you say it, we’ll search for it on your badge. Some of us just grab the badge and read it. But most people, especially if they’ve forgotten your name from before, try to read it without getting caught. If your badge is sitting low—on your stomach, say—eyes are going to travel down your body, so unless this is what you want, hold up the badge. “Hi, I’m Gael from Canada, where no, I don’t live in an igloo.”
Don’t stand too close when talking. This isn’t just because of personal space violation. How can you speechread when you’re touching noses? That’s not communicating—that’s making out. Back off a bit so you can talk without crossed eyes.
Don’t talk with food in your mouth. If someone asks you a question while you’re eating, swallow quickly and do the tongue-over-teeth sweep to remove any bits. Pulled pork hanging from your lip or a gob of spinach wedged in your pearly whites is very distracting for speechreaders
Make sure your facial expressions match your words. Don’t say happy stuff with a sad face. None of this “I’m really happy to meet you” with the face you normally reserve for cleaning toilets. Don’t laugh while you say, “Yeah, I lost 30dB of hearing this year!” You’ll confuse people or worse, creep them out.
HoHs can be just as impatient as hearing people. If someone repeatedly asks you to repeat yourself, don’t roll your eyes and think, “Wow, is this guy ever deaf!” Maybe it’s how you speak. Try rephrasing, moving to a quieter spot, or writing it down. And it would help if you’re sure you’re speaking the same language. As someone rattles on, wouldn’t it be polite—at some point—to let them know that you actually don’t speak Hebrew? That they lost you at shalom? Or bonjour, hola, ciao, or Namaste?
The number one rule is NO BLUFFING. Why would you travel across the country or halfway around the world just to nod your head and smile like an idiot? If you don’t understand, admit it. If you’re tired of saying pardon, cup your ear, or make those faces that let people know you can’t understand them and need a repeat.
Don’t let other people bluff, either. It’s easy to spot—they just don’t seem connected. They look around to see what other people are doing and then copy their facial expressions. Don’t let them fall into the bluffing pit—these are your fellow HoHs.
That’s about it. Wave and smile and meet people. Ask for clarification. Don’t bluff. Share stories. Learn. Because this is the best place in the world for that.
If you are affected by hearing loss, consider connecting with an organization in your area. Next year’s HLAA convention will be held in Salt Lake City in June 2017. The Canadian Hard of Hearing Association conference will be held in Victoria BC, May 25-27th. I’ll be at both—meet me there.