Communication for the hearing impaired

restGuest blogger Daniel Pistritto shares his personal strategies for communication optimisation. 

I recently wrote a post offering some tips on how best to communicate with a hearing impaired person. In this follow up post I’m going to look at the other side of the fence, namely what those with a hearing impairment can do to try and make communication as easy as possible. I’m going to speak from experience; highlighting some of the challenges I have faced in the past and what I did to overcome them.

I’d like to start by asking you a simple question that might seem a bit off topic.

Do you understand the basics of how your hearing aid works?

You should know:

  • If your hearing aid allows you to manually adjust the volume and in what circumstances should you be doing this.
  • How the microphones on the hearing aid actually work in helping you hear in different environments
  • If there are any specialized programs in your hearing aid and what they are for.
  • What general maintenance is involved in ensuring that your hearing aid is working optimally for as long as possible.

If you don’t know the answer to any (or all) of the questions above you should be asking your hearing specialist for this information, as an understanding of your hearing aid is the first step to getting the most out of it and therefore managing your hearing impairment.

As an example, I’ve had clients tell me that when dining out, they sit with their back to a wall thinking that if there is no sound behind them, they are minimizing the effect of background noise. Most hearing aids are designed with a front and rear microphone and are programmed to be able to give preference to the sound coming from the front microphone in a noisy environment. With this in mind; in the busy restaurant situation, you will find that sitting with your back to the noise will allow your hearing aids to focus on the sound of your dining partner in front of you.

If you have a hearing loss, it’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. The sooner you can understand that, the easier things are going to be. I spent the majority of my life trying to hide my hearing loss; at first it was easy because my loss wasn’t severe but as I got older my hearing got substantially worse and I had to try to change habits that I had for most of my life. It’s not easy unlearning bad habits!

There was an incident about 15 years ago, when I was crossing a major street in the CBD of Melbourne and I didn’t hear that there was a tram approaching. One of my colleagues, whom I was out to lunch with, grabbed my shirt and pulled me back. That was a frightening experience as if it wasn’t for him; I think it’s very likely I would have been hit. That should have been a turning point for me but due to my stubbornness; it took quite a few more years for the message to sink in!

It’s only in the last 9 years that I have stopped trying to hide my hearing aids under my hair; that is mostly due to the support from my wife and children. I now have my hair cut short and show my hearing aids… LOUD AND PROUD! People should be able to see my hearing aids and know at a glance that I am hearing impaired.

When I am not at the hearing clinic, I work part time in an electronics retail store and will often get hearing impaired customers who see my hearing aids and then only want to be served by me because they know I will understand the challenges they often face.

There are always going to be environments and situations which you will dread because you know they will be a challenge to your reduced hearing; for me it’s phoning a call centre or approaching a busy service desk. Quite by accident, I found that I can make these difficult situations much easier for myself by making the person I need to speak to aware right away that I have a hearing loss.

‘Hello, I have a hearing impairment. Could you please help me with …….?’

I found that if I take an assertive (while pleasant and polite) approach to my needs as someone with a hearing disability most people will usually show a genuine desire to help me out. I have come across the odd exceptions however where a sales rep or customer service officer is rude or unsympathetic even after being told I am hearing impaired, but I have learnt to dismiss them as being plainly unfit to serve customers in general.

I have learnt, through experience, to know my limitations, especially when it comes to trying to not only follow, but take part in a conversation with a group of people. The first thing I try to do is place myself in a position that works best for me; this might mean seating myself at a dinner table so my better ear is closer to the majority of the other people or so I am sitting directly opposite to someone I know I will find easier to understand.

Recently we had a lovely lunch out with our closest friends and I purposely sat myself with my wife and my best friend (who has a strong deeper voice) directly across the table from me. Even though I didn’t catch much of what everyone else was saying, I was able to understand most of the conversations occurring by listening to what my wife and best friend were saying plus I had the advantage of being able to lip read them also.

Don’t just be a listener. I have found that if I can start a conversation, it’s a lot easier to follow as I already know the topic and can therefore talk more. It’s to be expected that you will miss something so if that’s the case ask someone to repeat themselves.

I used to have the habit of saying ‘sorry?’ or ‘pardon?’ whenever I didn’t understand something that was said, even if I only missed a small part of it. What I found was that people would then either give me only a truncated version which often didn’t convey the same meaning as what was said originally or they would say things like ‘never mind’, ‘it wasn’t important’ or something similar. Although I knew I probably should have; my temperament usually stopped me challenging the person in this situation and I would find myself shrugging my shoulders and once again missing on what was being said around me. So I would just nod my head and smile or laugh when everyone else was doing it and pretend I was a part of the conversation when I may as well have been walking on the moon!

Here’s a different approach to the above situation; if you miss some part of something said, rather than just saying pardon or something similar, try asking the person to repeat just the part that you missed or better yet give them an idea of what you did understand so they know that you don’t need them to repeat the whole thing.

Wow, that’s really sad hearing about Mary being in hospital, though I didn’t quite understand all of what you said. Would you mind repeating what the doctors think is wrong with her?

The ability to lip read can be a godsend when trying to make out what someone is saying so I always try to be in a position where I can clearly see a person’s face and mouth when am speaking to them or listening to something they are saying. Lip reading is a skill that gets better the more you try it so rather than just using it as something to fall back upon, try to utilise it as an essential part of communication. Watching the way someone’s mouth moves as they speak can often help you fill the gaps in parts of the words you have not heard correctly.

I’ve had a worsening hearing impairment for close to 30 years and am currently in the severe to profound range. I’ve had a long time to adapt and learn what works for me and what doesn’t when trying to get by, however there are still situations, like busy family gatherings or dinner in a very noisy restaurant where nothing I try seems to make any difference and I just cannot make out anything that anyone is saying. It is at times like that I know I need to rely upon other people to assist. My wife and I have certain hand or finger gestures we can use across a room if need be so I can indicate to her that I’m struggling with the background noise and might need her assistance.

A hearing impairment can make you feel like you are all alone in a world made up of noise and babble, if you let it. Whilst it was very easy to give in by avoiding social gatherings altogether I found that this wasn’t really doing anything to help the situation. On the contrary, avoidance only made me fearful of the social events that I could not get out of attending.

So what closing advice to I have to give?

Don’t try to hide your hearing loss; after all you can’t expect other people to understand…if they don’t understand!

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