Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays — yummy food and the warmth of family coming together — but it can also be a challenging one for people with hearing loss. We worry if we will we be able to participate in the overlapping conversations. Or if people will speak with their mouths full making lipreading impossible. We wonder how we will combat the hearing loss exhaustion that comes from concentrating with all our might to hear amid the din of a large dinner. We want to partake in all the joy and togetherness the holiday offers, but we wonder if we will feel left out, isolated from the conversation because of our hearing loss.
This year, because of the pandemic, we need to add a new challenge — celebrating virtually. In some ways, a virtual Thanksgiving may be easier from a hearing loss perspective. Keep these rules in mind when planning yours.
Use the right technology
Virtual dinners, like virtual business meetings can be structured for improved communication. Be sure to choose the right technology. While Zoom is the most common virtual meeting platform, Google Meet may be a better choice since it provides free ASR captions on all calls. We are still urging Zoom to change their inaccessible ways. To support these efforts, sign my petition Provide Free Captions for People with Hearing Loss on Video Conferencing Platforms.
If others choose the platform and it does not provide captions, use a speech-to-text app live Live Transcribe (Android only) or Otter.ai to make your own. Set up your phone close to the computer speakers to provide the best sound information to the captioning device. Caption accuracy can often be improved by using an external microphone — a separate device you plug into your phone — to boost the range at which your phone can pick up sound.
When on the video call, use speaker mode. While Gallery mode will let you see everyone at once, speaker mode will enlarge the image of the person who is speaking, making it easier to use speechreading cues. Consider attaching your hearing aids to the computer sound system via bluetooth to stream the conversation directly into your hearing aids. This will not work well if you are having a hybrid event, with some people in person and others remote. Wearing noise-cancelling headphones or other listening devices can work in a similar way when linked to your computer sound system, with the same drawbacks if you need to hear people in person as well as online.
Keep the group small
Organize the seating in the room for optimal hearing, and place the computer close to your seat for optimal viewing and hearing. For in-person events, I like to sit in the middle of the table, putting me as close as possible to as many speakers as possible. I ask those who are hardest for me to hear to sit opposite so I have the best chance of using my lipreading skills.
While it is tempting to invite the WHOLE family to a virtual event, large online meetings can become unwieldy without a full-time moderator as people aren’t sure when they should speak and when they should listen. If your group is very large, consider hosting multiple smaller calls instead — one for the appetizer, one for the main meal and one for dessert. This will provide a series of more intimate settings, but will still allow everyone to visit with one another, just not simultaneously.
Follow communication best practices
Best practice communication standards should be a part of every gathering, but they are often overlooked when everyone is in the same room. Virtually more structure is required. Set ground rules up front so people know to speak one at a time or use the chat box to clarify points and ask questions. Set an agenda where each person is given time to share their updates and answer questions from the group. While this may seem formal or stilted at first, it can work if everyone has the right attitude of fun. If mistakes happen, don’t sweat it. Just jump back into the routine when it makes sense.
The pandemic is already exhausting and the holidays may add to the stress, especially if you are celebrating them far from loved ones. Be kind to yourself and others by caring for your health and wellness. For me, this means finding time each day for yoga or meditation. For others it might be taking a warm bath, or enjoying a cup of coffee in much needed silence.
Don’t be afraid to take breaks from the action as needed. Stepping away from the table (or the screen) for a quiet break in another room will let you reset your batteries and boost your energy for another round of socializing.
Set realistic expectations
Set realistic expectations for the event. Having a group conversation at a large table is almost impossible for many people with hearing loss. Adding in the complexity of technology flubs and internet issues can make things even tougher. Focus on what you can achieve by connecting with those near you in the room or one at a time online. Try to approach the event with optimism and joy. Reflect on all that you have to be thankful for at this crazy time for the world. Try to enjoy the special time with family and friends, even if you don’t catch every word they are saying.
I wish everyone a safe, healthy and very happy Holiday season!