Whether you are an office worker, student, or cashier – your chances of interacting with a person who has hearing loss are pretty good. An estimated 15 percent of Americans (37.5 million) have it to some degree. As with many types of disabilities, you may feel nervous about how to approach a person that doesn’t have normal hearing. But by learning some basic tips and being willing to give it a go, you can communicate with a friend or colleague who has hearing loss.
There are good reasons to try – one of the hardest things for many people with a disability is the sense of isolation. A study published in 2014 found that hearing loss was associated with a greater chance of feeling socially isolated. By understanding the challenges non-hearing people face, and learning a few skills, you’ll help someone feel included, and open up your own world as well.
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It seems obvious, but when approaching someone with hearing loss, don’t begin the conversation before you have their attention. You are used to having the sound of your voice signal the start of an interaction. But if someone needs to read lips or use facial cues to understand what you are saying, make sure they can see your face. It puts a person at a disadvantage if you are already mid sentence when they realize you are addressing them. For the same reasons, don’t turn away while you are speaking.
Visually distracting environments can make it difficult to focus. Don’t play with your hair, car keys, or phone while you are speaking. Make sure you are in a place with enough light. Lip reading takes a lot of mental energy. Make sure this isn’t wasted while trying to ignore extra visual information.
Speak at a normal pace. People who can lip read have learned it by watching speech at a standard pace. If you speak too fast or slow it may be harder for them to understand. Don’t exaggerate lip movements or mumble for the same reason. Keep eye contact during your conversation, and don’t cover your mouth. Shouting is usually not helpful. If a person has profound deafness, raising the volume doesn’t help, and can actually hurt people who wear hearing aids.
Someone who is deaf can’t rely on intonation or verbal cues like “uh-huh” to be assured that you are listening. Use facial expressions to show emotions. There isn’t any need to exaggerate, but you can nod in response to what they are saying, or smile, or grimace, as may be appropriate.
Don’t use introductory words like, “If you feel like it, perhaps, would you like to go hiking today, or maybe tomorrow.” Just get to the point – “Would you like to go hiking?” The meaning of the sentence often only becomes clear at the end, so keep things concise.
Don’t talk over people. When hearing people have a conversation in a group, it is common to speak at the same time, or overlap each other in the conversation. For someone relying on the visual aspect of the conversation, this can be a problem. If the topic suddenly changes, make sure the hearing impaired person is caught up before you move on.
Most importantly, don’t give up. If you think you aren’t being understood, don’t just drop the effort. Keep trying by rephrasing and using visual cues. If you feel stuck, use a pen and paper, or type a word or phrase into your phone. But if you say, “It doesn’t matter,” you risk communicating to your friend or colleague that they don’t matter.