Our ability to communicate is what makes us human. It's how we connect with others, share our thoughts and feelings, and build relationships. Whether it’s communicating with friends, family, or co-workers, we rely on our ability to communicate effectively in order to maintain relationships and interact with the world around us. But what happens when someone you know is Deaf or has hearing problems?
Whether you have a relative who experienced a loss of hearing in old age, a friend who experienced sudden hearing loss, or you know someone who was born d/Deaf in one or both ears, you know that communication can be a challenge. But it doesn’t have to be!
With a little bit of knowledge and understanding, you can easily learn how to communicate effectively with someone who has difficulty hearing.
First, it's important to understand what hearing loss is. There are two main types of hearing loss: sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss.
Sensorineural hearing loss occurs as a result of hair cells in the inner ear being damaged. This can happen at birth, as a natural result of aging, due to exposure to loud sounds, or as the result of certain health conditions. More specifically, some medical conditions that affect blood flow to the inner ear, like heart disease or high blood pressure, can cause this kind of hearing loss.
However, the most common kind of sensorineural hearing loss is age-related hearing loss, presbycusis. According to the National Institute on Aging, about a third of people over 65(opens in a new tab) and nearly half of people over 75 will experience this kind of age-related hearing loss.
Conductive hearing loss occurs in the middle ear or outer ear, typically by something obstructing the ear canal and preventing sound waves from reaching the inner ear. The obstruction is usually earwax or a foreign object, meaning this kind of hearing loss can usually be reversed with professional medical care. It's also possible to experience mixed hearing loss. This occurs when a person who already has sensorineural hearing loss develops a conductive component.
For people who are born with hearing loss, cochlear implants are a popular option. A cochlear implant is a surgically-implanted device that helps to bypass damaged hair cells and send electrical signals directly to the auditory nerve. This allows people with hearing loss to receive sound signals and interpret them as speech.
For older adults who gradually develop hearing loss over time, hearing aids are the most common treatment. A hearing aid is a small, electronic device that sits in the outer ear canal and amplifies sound, making it easier to hear.
Regardless of the kind of hearing problem your loved one is experiencing, there are several steps you can take to make communication easier. Here are our top 6 ways to communicate with a Deaf or hard-of-hearing person:
1. Make Sure You Have Their Attention
When two people with normal hearing start up a conversation, they might not find it necessary to look up from what they're doing or even be in the same room. But for someone with hearing loss, it's important to ensure you have their attention before starting a conversation. The most common way to do this is by tapping them on the shoulder or by waving your hand to get their attention. However, it's worth asking your loved one how they would prefer to be signaled.
Then, once you have their attention, make sure to maintain eye contact throughout the conversation. You might normally multi-task during a conversation, but for someone with hearing loss, it's important to give them your full attention.
2. Get The Environment Right
For those who have difficulty hearing, their ability to hear can be largely affected by their surroundings. For instance, background noise can be a big problem. Being in an overly loud environment can make it difficult to follow a conversation, or even make it impossible to hear and understand speech. If you're planning on having a conversation with someone who has hearing loss, try to find a quiet place where there won't be any loud noises or other distractions.
It's also important to make sure there's good lighting. For someone with hearing loss, it can be helpful to see a person's face while they're speaking. This way, they can see lip movements and facial expressions, which can provide context clues for what's being said and make speech-reading easier.
If you're not sure whether the environment is conducive to conversation, it's always best to ask. You could say something like, 'Do you think this is a good place to talk?' or 'Would you feel more comfortable talking somewhere else?'
3. Learn Some ASL
American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language used by Deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States. It's a complex language with its own grammar and syntax, but learning even a few signs that are relevant to your daily life or the alphabet can be helpful in communicating with someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing.
There are a number of resources available for learning ASL, including online courses, videos, apps, and books. You can also find interpreters who can translate ASL into spoken English, or vice versa. Many people who were born with hearing loss already know some ASL, but if your loved one is an older adult who is losing or has lost their ability to hear, you can try learning ASL together! This is a great way to show them that you care, strengthen your relationship, and improve your communication.
4. Speak Normally
Whether you're using ASL or just talking, remember to speak normally. Many people often speak louder or speak slowly, which can make it harder for someone with hearing loss to understand what's being said. Though not everyone with hearing loss is able to lip-read, lip-reading is certainly easier when people are speaking at a normal volume and rate.
Similarly, try not to exaggerate your expressions or make any other unneeded changes to the way you communicate. Though facial expressions and gestures can help you get across the feeling of what you're saying, they can also be distracting and make it harder to understand the words themselves when exaggerated. People with hearing loss are often able to pick up on normal facial expressions and body language, so just relax and be yourself!
Also, if you're using ASL, it can be frustrating when people try to talk to you while you're signing. If you're not an ASL user yourself, try to avoid interrupting an interpreter or a d/Deaf person who is using ASL to communicate.
5. Try Written Communication
Another great way to communicate with someone who has trouble hearing or any other communication disorders is by writing things down. Whether that means taking pen to paper or using the notes app on your smartphone, written communication can be very helpful in a number of situations. For instance, if you're in a place with lots of background or loud noise, or if you're trying to share information that might be difficult to remember or understand verbally, like phone numbers, addresses, or appointment times, written communication can be very useful.
Also, you may notice that some older adults with age-related hearing loss struggle to hear high-pitched noises. That could include hearing the phone ringing or smoke alarms going off, but it may also include women's and children's voices. However, a person with hearing loss may struggle to hear low-pitched noises, like men's voices, instead. In either case, written communication can be a helpful tool.
6. Invest In Hearing Aids, Assistive Devices
For older adults with age-related hearing loss, wearing hearing aids can make a big difference in their ability to communicate. Hearing aids are used to treat mild to severe hearing loss, and they come in a variety of styles, including those that fit completely in the ear canal (called an 'in-the-ear' or ITE hearing aid) and those that sit behind the ear (called a 'behind-the-ear' or BTE hearing aid). A person may use hearing aids in just one ear or in both ears, depending on their individual hearing loss.
There are also assistive listening devices (ALDs), which are external devices that can be used with or without hearing aids. ALDs can include everything from TV listening systems and alarm clocks to doorbells and telephones. Some ALDs, like TV listening systems, use wireless technology to send sound directly to the person's hearing aid or earbuds, while others, like doorbells, use vibrating pads that can be placed on a pillow or under a mattress to alert the person when someone is at the door.
If you or a loved one have trouble hearing, it's time to meet with a hearing specialist at Francis Audiology. Untreated hearing loss is one of the biggest roadblocks in communication, but with the help of a hearing aid provider, you'll be able to communicate more effectively and improve your quality of life.
Whether you're looking to treat hearing loss, prevent age-related hearing loss, or reduce your noise exposure with ear protection, the team at Francis Audiology can help! Our experts specialize in testing and managing hearing problems for patients of all ages. Schedule an appointment with us to get started!