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Hearing loss affects 48 million Americans today. A problem so widespread ought to be better-understood by more of us, but alas many of us are not sure what to do to accommodate a person with hearing loss. It’s a hidden disorder, and what we can’t see is often hard to address.
We might think that hearing loss simply makes the world quieter for the person who has it, but that’s not quite how it works. Hearing loss results from the impairment or death of tiny, hair-like cells in the inner ear, called cilia, that transduce (convert) the mechanical energy of sound into the electrical energy that the brain receives. Different sets of these cells are responsible for transducing different frequencies of sound, so a person may have a great hearing loss at high frequencies and little to none at lower frequencies.
Furthermore, their eardrum and the little bones in the middle ear, which work together to prepare the mechanical sound for delivery to those little hairs, are likely functioning perfectly well. This means when you yell into the ear of a person with hearing loss, they don’t hear you any better, and might actually hear worse due to the distortion created by the overload in the middle ear.
While there is a wide spectrum of hearing loss, ranging from barely-measurable to profound, there are some general tips you can follow that will be helpful for communicating with your loved ones with hearing loss. Remember to ask if there is anything they’d like you to do to communicate with them better. They might give you one of the tips below, or something they’ve worked out for themself that works especially well for them. If you haven’t seen them in a little while, their hearing loss may have progressed, so they may have new communication needs. Remember, in practicing the best communication skills, communication, itself, is key!
Slowing Down, Loudening Up
A good general guideline in most cases is to slow your speech and speak a little louder. Some people may not require this and some may appreciate it; it’s never a bad idea to ask first if you’re in doubt.
Speaking slower to a person who is hard of hearing does not mean you should draw your words out, like a slowed-down recording. Instead, enunciate more clearly and leave slightly more space between your words. Likewise when speaking louder, the idea is not to shout, but just to push a little more air through your normal speaking voice.
Rephrase, Don’t Repeat
If you’re asked to say something again, rather than saying the same words louder, try rephrasing what you want to communicate. People with hearing loss rely a lot on context clues to make sense of what they’re hearing, so providing a new set of words is better than giving them the same ones over again.
Face Them When You Speak
Whether you’re walking side by side, sitting across from one another, or in any other situation, don’t expect a person who is hard of hearing to understand you if you’re not facing them when you speak. Many people with hearing loss start to rely on lipreading, but many sounds we make when we talk also come across better when directed to a person’s head.
Control the Environment
Whenever possible, think about the setting that you’ll be conversing in. If you’re going to their home, they’ll likely already have things prepared for themself. But if they’re coming to your house you can rearrange things to make it easier for them, and if you’re meeting them in a public space, choose one that best accommodates the environmental needs of a person with hearing loss.
Make sure the space is well-lit, and that you can sit comfortably across from one another at a fairly close distance. Try to avoid background noises; position yourselves further away from noise-making appliances. And it may go without saying, but turn the TV or music off.
Encourage Them to Use Hearing Aids
If your loved one is not yet wearing hearing aids, suggest that they get a hearing test and start doing so. Hearing aids are being shown more and more to be a crucial benefit to long-term health and wellness at the same time as their capabilities are improving dramatically. Sometimes we all need a nudge in the right direction, so kindly encourage your loved one to do what’s best for them and schedule a hearing test. Contact us to learn more!