Sometimes when people want to communicate with us, we may not be fully functioning, hearing-wise.
In the shower, for example, or when we are abruptly awakened from sleep. Or when going down for breakfast at a weekend house party, and realizing you’ve put on all your clothes and all your makeup, but have forgotten the minor detail of your hearing aids or cochlear implant. Or when, in the midst of a social conversation, your battery dies and you are temporarily senseless (again, hearing-wise).
These are rare events, but they do happen. And when they do, what does one do?
First, let other people know that your hearing is at low tide or that you are temporarily deaf. One method is to perform the universally-understood routine of shaking your head slightly while frowning and pointing to your ears. The frown is important, because if you do the routine with a smile, they may think you have lost your mind, drunk too much the night before or are sleepwalking and dreaming that your hearing has been returned to you by the night fairies.
The other option is to tell them: “Gosh, you’re all speaking softly this morning. Oh, heck-darn, it’s me! My hearing aids (or cochlear implant) are still on the bathroom counter. Back in a flash!”
Neither of these are useful when caught, deaf-ish, in the shower. I know what you’re thinking—who would try talking to a person with hearing loss, who’s standing behind a curtain or shower door and beneath a noisy waterfall, some of which, presumably, is in the shower-er’s eyes? It should be self-evident that being naked includes being devoid of hearing technology. But the who in this case would be the Hearing Husband who needs to know where I put the car keys, or the child who needs something—food, money, anything—right away.
Likewise, when awakened from a deep sleep, especially in the dark of night, it should not be necessary to explain that you can’t hear or understand. But if the person desperate to converse cannot wait for you to get your hearing aids out of the dry-aid and into your ears, then emergency communication tactics are needed.
- The person with hearing loss should make sure the other guy is very close, eyeball-to-eyeball. Then, ask them what in the name of all that’s holy is the problem? Your voice might be quite loud, not being able to hear yourself and all, but that’s their problem, not yours. (And if you’re in the shower, you might want to reinforce your point by spraying as much water on the interloper as possible.)
- Ask them to state their purpose in as few words as possible, accompanied by appropriate gestures that will clarify their meaning. For example, the word ‘keys’ is difficult to lipread on its own. Try it; grab a mirror and mouth the words ‘keys’, ‘ease’ and ‘heat’. They all look the same, right, without any supporting evidence? Mind you, it could also be a big smile, but the difference is that when a word is uttered, the speaker usually moves their head a bit, with a slight upward tilt of the chin, whereas a smile is just a smile. (As a speechreading instructor, I know what I’m talking about.) So, along with saying ‘keys’, the speaker should raise their eyebrows to indicate a question, and bring their hand close to their face to make a motion that simulates turning a key in the lock. “THE CAR KEYS?” I would bellow. “Really, you couldn’t wait another two minutes? Gahh, try my purse!”
- A further word on what qualifies as an appropriate gesture: the hearing speaker should not use frantic hand movements that wouldn’t be understood even with hearing aids in. Temporary deafness does not grant us temporary sign language fluency!
- If you have residual hearing and can understand a person speaking clearly and directly into one ear, invite them to do so. But ask them to keep it short, because they may be speaking at high volume with a force that could blow up some delicate hair cell.
- The person with the emergency could write the message down. This might not work so well in the shower, and in the waking-up scenario time will be wasted turning on the light (which is temporarily blinding) and then waiting for you to put on your glasses.
- But if there is time to do #5, then there should also be time to put in the hearing aids or CI! Those of us who have been doing this daily, for a long time, can move damn fast when necessary. Sometimes, though, the stress of the moment can cause hearing aid fumbles. There is nothing more challenging than searching for a hearing aid battery in the carpet.
To summarize, in an emergency situation:
The speaker must face the person with hearing loss, be well-lit, speak clearly and use appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures. There should also be a good reason for the urgent conversation in the first place]
The person with hearing loss must pull out every communication strategy they know, including remembering to ‘put on’ hearing technology at the earliest opportunity. With respect to appearing in public, fully dressed and made-up but without hearing aids, try this. Make it a habit of saying to your reflection, just after the lipstick goes on, “You look fabulous, darling!” If you can’t hear yourself, there’s one more thing you need to do.