How To Explain Hearing Loss to the Uninitiated

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.

Living With Hearing Loss | A Hearing Loss Blog

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.

Hearing Loss Explanation Signs

Readers, what ways have you found to effectively describe your hearing loss?

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51 thoughts on “How To Explain Hearing Loss to the Uninitiated

  1. This is from a post I did on the Hearing Tracker Fourm

    What frustrates me isn’t my hearing loss, and make lack of hearing everything and understand what is being said to me, it is the lack of others even my own family to understand what it is like to have a hearing loss. Having a hearing loss and wearing hearing aids isn’t like needing glasses to see and to read. Glasses do a great job of improving your life and allowing you to read, what TV and get on with your life. Hearing aids do help you to hear things louder, and with modern Technology hearing aids do a lot better in allowing you to understand speech. But hearing aids can never give you normal hearing the way that glasses can give you back “normal” sight. The issue is we all hear differently, and have a different meaning for normal sounds like, it is just the way God wired us. I just wish at times that others could hear what I hear, so that maybe they could understand what it is like to be me.
    I wish people were more understanding when I tell them that I did not hear them, or that I did hear something from them but did not understand it, or even know they were speaking to me. I spend all of my time when I am around others just trying to decipher what is being said, it is like getting a message in that is encrypted and I have to decipher it in real time. I do not know of any other way to explain how I understand speech.
    I hear people talking and I pick up on some of the words, and I have to feel in the blanks with my best guess. For me I do not hear consonants the way a normal hearing person does, I have to guess at most of the words. I use to love a good mystery, and now days everyday that I have to figure out what people our saying is solving a mystery.

    • I suffer from menieres disease and this has caused me to loose my hearing in both ears not fully though.
      My ears are so sensitive to noise especially louď noises it actually hurts my gp says if I get hearing aids I’d give up trying to listen I’ve never heard so much rubbish any advice as it’s becoming embarrassing straining to hear

      • Why would your doctor tell you that? I have Meniere’s disease also and as I was losing my hearing I had hearing aids that helped me tremendously. After my hearing loss progressed I got bilaterally implanted with cochlear implants. Go to another doctor who knows about hearing loss. This doctor you saw was an idiot.

    • Cookie bite loss here… most conversation is bits and pieces to me too… almost like reversed Wheel of Fortune since it seems that vowel sounds are not too bad, but P, C, T, D, G etc all sound like an E – if you miss part of the other words and don’t see the lips moving..

  2. Shouting doesn’t make it better, just more painful. Speak slowly and clearly and don’t try to talk over background noise. You might think that my life is one of silence, but it’s not, it’s one of constant noise.

  3. What an excellent post. I use the negative comparison with glasses a lot. I LOVE those posters.

    I often remind people that I am wearing microphones in my ears, so subway noise, restaurant noise, a sudden screaming baby, the barking dog in the entryway, everybody-talking-at-once noise– all are greatly magnified along with the speech I want to hear. I do wear sophisticated hearing aids with automatic settings that mitigate some of these issues but there is a limit to what they can do.

    When I mention that I am (partially) reading lips to help me understand what I’m hearing, it is a reminder to face me; to get my attention; not to look down or away.

    I explain that some consonants are pretty much gone from my hearing range and that I can only tell the difference between bed/led/med/cred/head/fed/ted/stead/wed/fed/dead/Jed/Ned/read/red/said/etc. by context and lipreading, watching mouths to see how the word is being pronounced. Add an accent or background noise and it’s that much harder. “It’s exhausting to do all those calculations at present-time speed,” I’ll say, “and sometimes I misunderstand or the conversation has moved on while I’ve figured out the subject of the sentence and I have to ask for a repeat. It’s like always being a beginner in a foreign language happening at full speed. Please be understanding.” That sometimes hits the pause button for them.

  4. Great discussion of issues. I just wish the sensitivity to loud noises had been addressed in some detail. The exhaustion factor is huge with me; the loud noise sensitivity issue is most misunderstood by my friends and family.

  5. And these days with people and health care providers wearing masks we’re at a loss not being able to see faces. There’s trepidation to take them off.

  6. Love the posters!
    I run my own business by myself, and the location has a lot of traffic noise from the street. I’ve adapted my methods of taking people’s custom orders by asking them to fill out the order forms themselves. Some are reluctant, and my go-to phrase is “I’m a little hard of hearing.” It seems like when I say this, they become more cooperative and understanding. I read their order back so I don’t misinterpret their handwriting! LOL

  7. Your post came just at the right time for me! I get so frustrated sometimes I feel like crying. My worst time is a large group of people. I can not see every face. Some people talk so low I don’t even know something has been said until someone responds to them. Like you said, the noise around me of papers being shuffled etc. is a factor. Thank you and all of the responses. It helps to know someone understands me.

  8. Great blog and I, too, love the posters. In addition to describing it as Wheel
    Of Fortune, another analogy I use is that it’s like trying to figure out a song played on a piano with some keys missing. Those damaged hair cells and nerve fibers are hard to explain!

  9. Great post! It really is a challenge to understand hearing loss unless you’ve experienced it yourself and sometimes we get accused of “selective hearing”. I think that’s one of the reasons it can be such a relief to be with a group of others with HL because we all “get it”. The Wheel of Fortune is a great analogy. I too have found it more useful to say I am partially deaf than to say I have hearing loss. I’ve found the analogy of comparing it to being in a foreign country where you don’t know the language very well helpful, too, especially in explaining listening effort and brain fatigue. (Allison Marinelli’s concept of “listening effort” which she used in her research is so helpful, too.) And kudos to Jon for coming up with the term “peripheral hearing” and the lack thereof. Thanks for your blog, Shari, it’s so helpful and I always look forward to reading it!

  10. Great article today, you address all my hearing loss problems perfectly. The posters you use I have seen a few times before, I’m going to print them out and put them on the walls of my ‘hearing pod’ which I’m having installed in my shared office 😀

  11. It is largely the fault of those hearing aid vendors who falsely advertise that their product will make speech clearer and block out background noise. people believe this unless they are deaf. My hearing professional told me he wishes they would stop telling us that as it is not true as we hard-of-hearing folks know. So many people do think that hearing aids work like glasses-put them on and your hearing is perfect. It isn’ t their fault—they need to be educated and we need to stop being lied to. >

  12. This is the best of a long string of excellent blogs. I LOVE the Wheel of Fortune analogy. Not just because it explains how I hear, but also because, from now on I’m going to go for the grand prize. Also the visuals at the end of the article are priceless. Thanks for sharing them.

  13. I try to tell people that I can HEAR them I just can’t UNDERSTAND What they are saying. The foreign language analogy is an excellent way of describing it. An excellent article.

  14. What a great read for friends and family and most definitely colleagues of the hearing impaired. I have only ever been able to hear in one ear. People don’t understand why I don’t wear a hearing aid. Fact is a hearing aid will only enhance what is already there and my nerves in one ear are all dead. They don’t understand why I have to place myself in a certain position at a table or in a room so that my good ear can do the work of both. They don’t understand why in noisy and busy environments I need to see their faces to hear and in those same environments I feel like my head is going to explode because the noise is confusing and disorientating. It can be very lonely and extremely frustrating at times but at 45 years old I am now confident enough to say I need to sit in a certain place and to say sorry I wasn’t being rude I just didn’t hear you. But in school and my younger years I missed out on too much because I couldn’t hear and was too embarrassed to say anything. I wish I could have been as brave as a child

  15. Shari,

    You have written some great blogs but this is by far my favorite because of the visuals (Wheel of Fortune and posters). Thanks so much for helping us explain our loss.

  16. I really enjoyed reading this blog (these blogs). I have been worrying that at the age of 78 I am getting some kind of dementia as no matter how loud speech is there are certain people who I just cannot understand and I was concerned that my brain was not working properly in translating what they have said. Reading your blog I see it is a common factor and I can stop worrying so much.

  17. Great posters! Have you any that carry the messages set out in sign language? I sign and find it stops people in their tracks when I can’t hear them and they persist in ignoring that fact so I break in to sign language and that turns the tables on them as they don’t understand sign language.

    Good fun that.


  18. Shari, great article about explaining hearing loss. All the strategies you wrote about should work, but I have found, even when using those explanations, people just don’t care. They refuse to change their behavior for my benefit. It is a cruel world at times.

  19. I’m so glad to have stumbled across this article. I had to get hearing aids two years ago and my family doesn’t understand why I still ask, what? Repeatedly. I have all the problems listed in this article. I felt like sometimes they were just mumbling on purpose just to see if I could hear them. I replied with “I can hear you, I just didn’t understand what you said. They act like it’s my fault. Believe me, I’d give anything to have clean, clear hearing again. Thank you for sharing this.

  20. Wow! Great read! I am hearing disabled and connected with “if I don’t see you then I don’t hear you”. Great article to pull in the uneducated… keep writing !

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