Sometimes hearing loss can feel like one long string of education and self-advocacy moments. This is probably even more true during the Covid-19 pandemic, since everyone is learning the new rules of the road for safe and inclusive communication in a variety of settings. Hearing loss is an invisible disability, so it has always been important for us to let others know about the assistance we need.
We must continue to do this as we face new obstacles like facemasks and virtual communication.
Through advocacy, we can educate the general population about the challenges of hearing loss and the best practice communication tips that we use to help us hear our best. The more they know and understand, the easier it will be for us to receive the assistance that we need.
Advocate for What We Need to Communicate Well
Since you cannot see hearing loss, people don’t automatically know that we cannot hear them. We must be bold and forthright in letting people know we have hearing issues and asking for the specific accommodations that we require.
Sometimes this can be as simple as asking someone to speak more slowly or to face us when they speak. Other times it may require more extensive accommodations like open captioning or CART.
Face masks add a new challenge
It is important to wear masks to protect ourselves and others from the spread of the virus, but masks make many of our typical communication strategies like speech reading less effective. When having trouble communicating because of face masks explain the situation to your conversation partner.
Try saying something like: “I have hearing loss and am having trouble understanding you because of our masks. Would you please speak a bit louder and slower so I can hear you better?”
I recommend saying “our masks” rather than “your mask” to demonstrate that we are in this situation together and to avoid any appearance of blame.
Video conference calls can be exhausting.
Quarantining at home can mean long days of video conference calls, and without captioning, these can be very challenging for people with hearing loss. I recommend using Google Meet whenever possible since it provides free high-quality captioning for all video calls. Unfortunately, many businesses and schools use Zoom, which does not have this feature.
For a Zoom call, you can request that the host hire a third-party closed captioning service or create your open captions, using a speech-to-text app like Otter or Google’s Live Transcribe on a supplemental device like your smartphone. Many of us have come together to advocate for free auto-captioning for people with hearing loss on video conferencing platforms. If you believe Zoom should be providing free high quality auto-captions on its platform for people with hearing loss, consider signing this petition.
Don’t Forget Your Rights
People with hearing loss are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in all facets of life, including employment, education and entertainment activities. These protections do not disappear during the pandemic. According to Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), “You can and should request CART to be provided for Zoom work meetings, for online schoolwork, and telemedicine.”
You can read more about your ADA rights when working or attending classes from home on HLAA’s website.
The pandemic has made communicating more difficult for people with hearing loss, and it is up to us to raise awareness about the challenges we face. My hope is that our advocacy initiatives during this difficult time will create new and more inclusive ways of doing things in many areas of life — work, school, healthcare, and entertainment — and that these innovations will become the new and higher standard for accessible communication well into the future.
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.