When I first waded into the Sea of Hearing Loss Communication, I didn’t know that its healing waters would soon change how I lived my life.
Attending my initial meeting of people with hearing loss, I was astounded – truly flabbergasted – at the different strategies that people were using. As they mingled over coffee and snacks, people were brazenly modeling big, honkin’ hearing aids, FM systems, and pocket talkers. They were standing close, sometimes overstepping the boundaries of personal space, and often speaking rather embarrassingly loudly. But they were happy.
Happy – with hearing loss! Who knew?
Well, from that day on, I knew. That night was a watershed life-event for me; I came away with a new and positive sense of my hard of hearing self. Within a short period of time, the last wisps of shame about my disability – a shame I didn’t know I had been carrying – faded permanently into the mists. It’s hard to describe how much better life became for me.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned was that it’s OK to ask people to help you communicate better. It’s OK to ask them to do something to make communication work between the two of you. Although it may be my imperfect hearing that is presenting challenges, the impact and solution are a mutual concern; both of us must do something to improve our interaction. Communication is a two-way street, not a solo trip.
I had learned early to self-identify as being hard of hearing, and I had muddled through to this point, age 40, more or less successfully. But what was different now, what struck me in a blinding moment of enlightenment, was that I now understood I have the right to participate, and that the responsibility for creating good communication wasn’t mine alone, but one that I shared with others. My job was to clarify this role for other people, to let them know what I needed. And I also learned that many people with hearing loss aren’t comfortable with this role, or don’t know how to do it. It can take time and practice.
Before we ask others to communicate with us effectively, understanding why we need certain strategies may help us to ask for support. The following, and by no means complete, review of basic strategies may seem overly simple, like oh duh, but many people do struggle with making or expressing these requests well.
Strategy #1: Get the person’s attention before beginning to speak.
Why: It’s difficult to catch up when tuning in halfway through the sentence. The brain is working hard to make sense of what was said, and without the first words of a sentence or expressed thought, the rest of the words seem unconnected and meaningless.
The Ask: “Before starting to talk, get my attention. Wave at me; a small, discreet motion will do, not a jumping jack. If you’re coming from behind me, tap me on the arm or shoulder. Gently, please – if I don’t hear you coming, a thunderclap on my back will take 10 years off my life. Or, try flicking the lights.”
Strategy #2: The light must be on the speaker’s face.
Why: If the light is behind a speaker, the face is shadowed, making speechreading difficult. Standing in front of a sunny window, the speaker is almost completely blacked out, like someone in the witness protection program on TV.
The Ask: “Let’s change positions, or shift a bit this way, etc.” Close the blinds or curtains on a window to reduce glare.
Strategy #3: Speech should be clear: natural, well-articulated, not over-emphasized, moderate pace, slightly louder voice if necessary.
Why: Studies show that speech is more understandable when delivered at an easy-to-read-and-hear pace. Not too quickly or slowly. Not too quietly or loudly. Shouting and over-enunciation distorts the lips and makes the speaker look like a dope. Studies also show that by simply asking a person to speak more clearly, a person will understand approximately 20% more of what’s being expressed.
The Ask: When we express our needs, we must be polite but unapologetic. “Could you please speak a bit more slowly (or loudly, or clearly, etc.) so that I can understand you better? That’s better, thanks!”
Strategy #4: Reduce the distance between speakers.
Why: Depending on a person’s visual acuity (clearness of vision) and degree of hearing loss, the longer the distance between speakers, the more difficult it is to accurately speeechread. Studies show that sitting closer together, 10 feet apart or less, creates a more effective communication environment.
The Ask: “You’re so far away! Let’s move closer together; that makes it easier for me to speechread while we’re talking.”
Strategy #5: Facial expressions should match words, helpful when a tone of voice can’t be heard.
Why: People who speechread use many facial clues, observing a speaker’s eyes, lips, jaw, tongue, teeth and facial expressions. If someone smiles while delivering bad news, it’s confusing to the speechreader and can cause communication breakdown.
The Ask: “Did you just say that your daughter’s goldfish died? I just wanted to be sure, because you seemed happy. Oh, I see, you don’t like goldfish.”
Strategy #6: Speakers should maintain eye contact, minimize head and body movement, keep mouths clear of hands, food, gum and cigarettes, and keep facial hair well-trimmed.
Why: Speechreaders are focused face-watchers. Even partially covered eyes, lips or mouths can make a message unintelligible. A listener who does not ask for support may tune out or start bluffing.
The Ask: Be pleasantly blunt. “Sorry, I can’t get what you’re saying while you eat.” Would you mind moving your hands, losing the gum, shaving your face, etc?” “Excuse me, Mr. Rodriguez, your baseball hat is shading your eyes….”
Strategy # 7: Eliminate background noise where possible.
Why: Noise is Public Enemy #1 for people with hearing loss. Recent research shows that background noise causes the ears of those with hearing loss to work differently than those with normal hearing. Regardless of source – voices, traffic or machinery – noise interferes with a hard of hearing person’s ability to discriminate speech, to separate the voice from the other sources of noise.
The Ask: “Could we move over here, away from the noise?” Block out noise by closing doors and windows, turning off music, or asking people to speak one at a time when conversing in groups. Turn off background noise such as TV and radio during phone calls.
Good communication is essential to happy lives. It’s way up there with food, water and air – and we have the right to it. We just need to learn to ask for it, and then ask for it, and ask for it…..