Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Life is not captioned: Communicate Effectively With the Hearing Impaired

Are you talkin' to me??  


Oh, ARE you??  Well, hang on a minute.  There are a few things you should know before you begin.    
I'm deaf.  
No, I mean like, really deaf.
Those who know me well are already aware of the fact that I have a significant hearing loss.  I am what is called a "late deafened adult".  I was diagnosed with a "hereditary hearing loss" when I was 22 years old.  
This very quickly brings me to the second thing you need to know:
Hearing aids don't FIX hearing loss.   
I wear hearing aids in both ears.  And they aid.  That's what they do.  They help. They make it possible for me to hear many sounds that I would otherwise miss. But. 
But they can't work miracles. Many of us (the hard of hearing) struggle with helping others understand this fact. Even those without a diagnosed hearing loss experience moments of confusion when they miss words or sounds. Perception, acoustics, mouth piercings, speech impediments...your uncle's inebriation...all of those things can make the subtle tones of speech sound slurred or mumbled.  Often our hearing impaired brains take their own sweet time assembling the sounds into words (think of Wonkavision).  So I might turn my hearing aids up and still not understand, because all the volume button did was make those confusing noises louder.  They don't untangle the jumbled mess and make them into words. 

You're probably all "Lol, wut?" now, right?  
Listen, I know how frustrating it is to have to repeat yourself.  I am aware of this, and I feel just as bad about it.  Probably worse, actually.  Most people have learned that it's acceptable to give up after repeating the same words twice. Likewise, my fellow hearing impaired comrades and I have learned to nod and smile, and pretend we got it rather than further frustrate each other by asking you to try again.  Neither of these are acceptable.  When we give up on each other we imply that the other person's understanding (or their response) isn't important.  It IS important.  Being heard and validated is part of life and life is not captioned.  We can work around that.
     
I didn't lose my hearing to inconvenience anyone.  I promise I'll try to have patience with you if you'll try to have patience with me.
 

Thus we arrive at item number three on my list:  Please do not SHOUT at the hard of hearing.  
Do not get right up in our faces and talk loudly or whisper-yell things into our ears. That could possibly be one of the most insensitive and ignorant things you can do. 
Typically, people with hearing loss rely on their lipreading skills as much as (if not more than) their hearing aids to fill in missing consonants and vowel sounds.  When you yell, your mouth makes exaggerated movements, which distorts the sound and makes us that much more confused, not to mention what it does to our blood pressure.  
If you've ever seen anyone yell at a deaf person, you know how sad it looks, for both parties.  Yelling makes the deaf person feel ridiculous and it makes the speaker appear cruel.  Don't let your friends continue to shout at deaf people.  It simply doesn't work.  It just pisses us off. 

Instead, make sure your mouth is visible to us.  This means keeping a respectable distance!  If we can tell your dinner had something with garlic in it, THAT'S TOO CLOSE!   Still, we can't read your lips if you're not looking at us, so at least give us that much.  


I think that by now, you should have a pretty good idea of how to speak to me (and anyone else you encounter with a hearing loss, but I found a list.  And I do so love a list.
Read it.  Print it off and hang it on the fridge or in the break room at your office.  Share this blog post with all of your co-workers, family members, your weirdo friends on Facebook and any other social media outlets you frequent and spread the word.  
The hearing impaired are everywhere.  I'll bet you encounter more of us in one day than you ever realized.  You just don't know it yet.  And until deafness comes with a free t-shirt and a big orange safety flag, it will remain an invisible handicap.
Remember:  Deaf is not stupid.   It's often misconstrued as disinterest or stupidity. It can create an invisible wall around us because although we may know how to ask for what we need, others may not know how to deliver it and we still end up feeling excluded.
But I digress. 

Without further ado, the list.

Communicating with people with hearing loss
Successful communication requires the efforts of all people involved in a conversation. Even when the person with hearing loss utilizes hearing aids and active listening strategies, it is crucial that others involved in the communication process consistently use good communication strategies, including the following:
  • Face the hearing impaired person directly, on the same level and in good light whenever possible. Position yourself so that the light is shining on the speaker's face, not in the eyes of the listener.
  • Do not talk from another room. Not being able to see each other when talking is a common reason people have difficulty understanding what is said.
  • Speak clearly, slowly, distinctly, but naturally, without shouting or exaggerating mouth movements. Shouting distorts the sound of speech and may make speech reading more difficult.
  • Say the person's name before beginning a conversation. This gives the listener a chance to focus attention and reduces the chance of missing words at the beginning of the conversation.
  • Avoid talking too rapidly or using sentences that are too complex. Slow down a little, pause between sentences or phrases, and wait to make sure you have been understood before going on.
  • Keep your hands away from your face while talking. If you are eating, chewing, smoking, etc. while talking, your speech will be more difficult to understand. Beards and moustaches can also interfere with the ability of the hearing impaired to speech read.
  • If the hearing impaired listener hears better in one ear than the other, try to make a point of remembering which ear is better so that you will know where to position yourself.
  • Be aware of possible distortion of sounds for the hearing impaired person.They may hear your voice, but still may have difficulty understanding some words.
  • Most hearing impaired people have greater difficulty understanding speech when there is background noise. Try to minimize extraneous noise when talking.
  • Some people with hearing loss are very sensitive to loud sounds. This reduced tolerance for loud sounds is not uncommon. Avoid situations where there will be loud sounds when possible.
  • If the hearing impaired person has difficulty understanding a particular phrase or word, try to find a different way of saying the same thing, rather than repeating the original words over and over.
  • Acquaint the listener with the general topic of the conversation. Avoid sudden changes of topic. If the subject is changed, tell the hearing impaired person what you are talking about now. In a group setting, repeat questions or key facts before continuing with the discussion.
  • If you are giving specific information -- such as time, place or phone numbers -- to someone who is hearing impaired, have them repeat the specifics back to you. Many numbers and words sound alike.
  • Whenever possible, provide pertinent information in writing, such as directions, schedules, work assignments, etc.
  • Recognize that everyone, especially the hard-of-hearing, has a harder time hearing and understanding when ill or tired.
  • Pay attention to the listener. A puzzled look may indicate misunderstanding. Tactfully ask the hearing impaired person if they understood you, or ask leading questions so you know your message got across.
  • Take turns speaking and avoid interrupting other speakers.
  • Enroll in aural rehabilitation classes with your hearing impaired spouse or friend.

Now you'll note that it says nothing on this list about learning to sign.  I am not Deaf, I'm deaf.  I don't sign.  I took a few classes in it, and might be able to hold my own in a conversation with a member of the Deaf community, but no one I talk to in an average day signs.  The people you meet will need you to pay attention to the way you address them with your mouth and voice, not your hands. Lord knows there is nothing wrong with honing our interpersonal communication skills.
Take the time to learn how to effectively communicate with someone you know has a hearing disability.  You'll be all the better for it. Besides, right now you could be missing out on getting to know someone super-fantastically, terrifically awesome.   
Like me.  :)



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