During my last trip to the hair salon, I ran into a fellow parent at my children’s school. Both of our daughters had recently started college and we had much to discuss.
– How was drop-off?
– Do you hear from her?
– How is your younger child coping with the transition?
The questions were endless, but the conversation was challenging — at least for me — because we were both wearing masks. In the reverberant space, and without the help of lipreading cues, I struggled. I could have paused the conversation, mentioned my hearing loss, and whipped out my speech-to-text app to help, but it didn’t seem important enough. Perhaps that was a mistake. If we don’t let others know we are struggling, it is much harder to improve a difficult listening situation.
Later that week, I went to a medical lab for a blood test. The receptionist wore a mask and sat behind a plexiglass shield. “Sign here,” she mumbled. “What’s your email address,” she asked. I was once again struggling to communicate. But this time, I mentioned my hearing loss. And this changed everything. She spoke louder, enunciated better, and made eye contact. The rest of the interaction was much easier.
Self-Identification Can Weigh Us Down
The need to talk about your hearing loss all the time can be exhausting.
– Why can’t people just speak up?
– When will the mask-wearing end?
– Can’t I go just one day without needing my hearing-loss-script?
It takes effort to let people know about our hearing loss and educate them (perhaps for the umpteenth time) about what assistance we need from them to ease conversation. These include communication best practices like getting our attention before talking, or speaking one at a time when in a group setting.
But what choice do we have? Good communication is a two-way street and without the critical step of self-identifying, difficult listening situations cannot be remedied. It is our job to ask for the assistance we require.
Building Your Hearing Loss Script
How can you best let others know about your hearing loss? I used to avoid disclosing my hearing loss to others, held back by stigma. But now, I lead with this information.
Whenever I meet someone that I am having trouble understanding, I let them know that I have hearing loss and ask them to:
- Speak louder
- Turn on the captions
- Talk slower
- Switch seats with me
- Or whatever I need them to do to help us communicate.
Being as specific as possible in our requests provides the best results. While people are often willing to help once they know you have hearing loss, they usually do not know how to assist. This is further complicated by the fact that each hearing loss is unique. The adjustments I need might not be the ones required by the next person with hearing loss they meet. The more detailed we are when describing the assistance we need, the more likely we are to get it.
Masking Up Can Bring the Conversation Down
Masks have only made communication tougher for people with hearing loss, especially those of us who augment our residual hearing with speechreading. Lip movements and facial expressions cannot provide communication clues if they are hidden behind a mask. Yet masks are an important way to protect each other from Covid-19.
During the pandemic, technology tools like remote microphones and speech-to-text apps have become even more critical.
Many people, even those with typical hearing, struggle in masked conversations, and because of this, empathy for our inability to catch everything they say the first time is growing. Let’s hope these feelings outlast the pandemic.
Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, and avid Bikram yogi. She is the founder of Living With Hearing Loss, a blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus. She also serves on the Board of Trustees of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.