Hearing loss is difficult to understand if you have never experienced it. Part of it is obvious — we don’t hear things well — but other parts are confusing. Why do we hear well in one situation but not in another? Why are we sensitive to loud sounds? Why can we hear some people easily, but not others. Why must communication partners face us when speaking? Do we all know sign language? The questions are endless, as are the ways we try to explain our experience to the uninitiated.
Below I share some ways I have found to be effective in illuminating the mystery of hearing loss to the hearing community. Please share your suggestions in the comments.
Hearing Loss Is Like Playing Wheel of Fortune
Imagine a game board from the Wheel of Fortune. Some of the letters are filled in; others are blank. This is what a person with hearing loss hears. Then they must combine these assorted and incomplete sounds with lipreading cues and what they know about the topic being discussed to create words and phrases that make sense in the context of the conversation. It takes a lot of brain power and can be exhausting.
I Don’t Have Peripheral Hearing
A big thank you to Jon Taylor, HLAA’s NYC Chapter Vice President for this one. When I first heard him say it, a lightbulb went off. It perfectly describes that for people with hearing loss, hearing is not passive; it is an active process that takes concentration and effort. Hearing is not something we do in the background, while performing another activity. It is the activity. This explanation also demonstrates why it is important to get the attention of the person with hearing loss before you speak. Unless they are alertly listening, they are not going to hear you.
Hearing Aids Don’t Work Like Glasses
People often wonder why we don’t hear “normally” with our hearing aids. It is because hearing aids do not work like glasses. Glasses take an image that is blurry and distorted and for most people, turn it into something that is sharp and clear. Unfortunately, hearing aids do not work the same way. Hearing aids make things louder, but not crisper. The sound pattern often remains muffled or unclear.
Hearing aids are also not good at differentiating among sounds, so they augment the unwanted background noise in addition to the important speech sounds. This can often make it harder to hear in a noisy environment.
I’m A Little Bit Deaf
While I do not consider myself to be culturally Deaf and do not use sign language to communicate, explaining my hearing issues as being a little bit deaf can work wonders. Automatically, my requests for accommodations or the use of communication best practices are taken more seriously. Perhaps “deaf” sounds more serious than hearing loss. Be sure to clarify that you do not use sign language, unless, of course, you do. Many people incorrectly assume that the vast majority of people with hearing problems know how to sign. The opposite is actually true.
If I Can’t See You, I Can’t Hear You
For people with hearing loss, hearing is both auditory and visual. Body language, lipreading clues and facial expression are all important components we use to make sense of the sounds we hear. A fellow HLAA NYC Chapter member Ruth Bernstein recommends saying, “Don’t speak until you see the whites of my eyes,” stating that it is much clearer than simply asking someone to face them. It is also more memorable, which might make compliance with the request more likely.
Pictures Speak Louder Than Words
Some people are visual learners so verbal explanations are not helpful. The following pictures accurately demonstrate the experience of hearing loss and have tutorial benefits as well. The image of the hand covering the words in the first image makes it crystal clear why speakers must keep their mouths uncovered for you to “read their lips.” The last speaks volumes about why multiple speakers are difficult to follow.
Thank you to Action on Deafness for these wonderful tools.
Readers, what ways have you found to effectively describe your hearing loss?