Hearing loss can be socially isolating. The fear of not being able to hear can make it tempting to simply stay home, avoiding that dinner out with friends or an evening at the theater. Public spaces are often not conducive to easy communication but simple tricks like turning down the music, installing assistive listening devices and employing communication best practices can help make gatherings more inclusive for everyone. Here’s what you can do to help.
Hearing Loss can be isolating, unless you take steps to fight it
My hearing loss story began in my mid-20s, when I was in graduate school. In the large reverberant classroom, I noticed I was having trouble hearing the discussion. Occasionally the class would burst into laughter and I would be left looking around the room trying to figure out what was so funny. My neighboring classmates were getting tired of my constant requests for a repeat. I knew what the problem was — I was losing my hearing. My father had developed hearing loss as a young adult. Now it was my turn. I was scared.
As the years went by, my hearing loss worsened, leaving me embarrassed and increasingly isolated. My father had been highly stigmatized by his hearing loss and had passed those feelings on to me. I began avoiding friends I found difficult to understand and stopped going to the theater out of fear that I would miss much of the dialogue. It was easier to stay home and watch TV with the closed captions on than to risk wasting time and money on dialogue that might be unintelligible. I was missing out on many of the experiences I used to enjoy.
Once I had children this all changed. My hearing loss is genetic, so I feared I may have passed it on to them. I needed to set them a better example of how to thrive with hearing loss in case either of them should develop the condition. I started wearing my hearing aids all the time and learning about assistive listening devices and hearing loops. I taught my friends and family communication best practices and asked them to follow them so I could hear my best. I even started a blog, LivingWithHearingLoss.com where I share the tricks I use to live my best life despite hearing loss. I vowed that I would no longer allow my hearing loss to isolate me from the people I love or from the life I wanted to live. It takes effort, but it is worth it.
Hearing Loss is more common than you think
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 460 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss and that number is expected to almost double by 2050. This jump is not an issue of aging alone. The WHO warns that more than 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults worldwide are at risk of hearing loss, likely due to unhealthy noise exposure.
Despite its prevalence, hearing loss is often not taken seriously, but it should be. Hearing loss is associated with many serious medical conditions including higher incidences of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and falling. When left untreated, it is also associated with a higher likelihood of dementia, most likely due to the social isolation that often accompanies it. As the WHO explains, “Exclusion from communication can have a significant impact on everyday life, causing feelings of loneliness, isolation, and frustration.”
Hearing Aids don’t fix Hearing Loss, but they do assist
Hearing loss is hard to comprehend unless you have experienced it yourself. Picture a gameboard from the Wheel of Fortune with only some of the letters in place. This is often what people with hearing loss experience during a conversation. Then they must turn those incomplete sounds into words or phrases that make sense given the subject being discussed. It is exhausting. Sometimes it is easier to avoid socializing because it is just too much work, leading to isolation and depression.
Listening effort is required even when wearing hearing aids. Unfortunately, hearing aids do not work like glasses. For most people, glasses transform a blurry image into something crisp and clear without any additional work required. Hearing aids are different because they only amplify sounds; they do not make them sharper. Hearing aids also augment all sounds, so background noises like silverware clinking against plates are boosted in addition to the more important speech sounds. In a loud restaurant, hearing aids can sometimes make it more difficult to hear!
How can you help support people with Hearing Loss?
Since hearing loss is an invisible disability, it is easy to overlook. This means people with hearing loss must actively ask for the help they need to hear. Sometimes these requests are met with cynicism or disbelief, since a person with hearing loss may seem to hear perfectly in one situation or environment, but struggle in others. It can be confusing for the uninitiated.
Several fixes exist to help make public spaces more inclusive for people with hearing loss. Some are technological and would require expense and/or legislative changes, but others are simpler, requiring behavioral changes alone. Consider how you might help make your next event, party, or meeting more accessible for people with hearing loss. Here are some suggestions.
Turn down the noise.
Noise pollution is dangerous for everyone. It raises cortisol levels and puts our hearing at risk of damage. It also makes it harder for people to follow conversations, with or without hearing loss. Second-hand smoke is regulated in public spaces, why not second-hand noise? Regulations for workplace noise exposure have existed for decades. Perhaps limits should be set for public places such as restaurants, concert halls and airports. Even without a mandate, if you are in charge of the soundtrack you can help by keeping it at a modest volume.
Use a microphone at meetings.
Please don’t assume everyone can hear. Even in informal meetings using a microphone has been shown to increase attentiveness and recall for participants. Some speakers are resistant to using a microphone, even when it is required given room acoustics. Perhaps they believe it will make their session feel formal and discourage participation. The opposite may be true. If people can only speak when using the microphone, side conversations and crosstalk are significantly reduced. Using a microphone helps to promote better communication practices and ensures that your meetings are inclusive for everyone.
Make assistive listening devices available in all public spaces.
No one would construct a new building, airport or other public space without including ramps for people who use wheelchairs. These ramps provide significant benefit for people who use wheelchairs, but also for people with baby strollers or heavy luggage, and those with other mobility challenges. Accessible design works for everyone. The same could be true by making public spaces more inclusive for people with hearing loss. Hearing loops and captioning make speeches, theater performances, courtroom dialogue and announcements at the airport more understandable for everyone.
Utilize communication best practices.
This is not only good manners but will help make conversations more inclusive. Communication best practices include things like getting the attention of the person before speaking to make sure they are listening, keeping background noise down and the lights up to allow for lipreading. Please speak in a clear voice and at an even rate. Don’t shout or cover your mouth or turn away while speaking, as that will also make lipreading more difficult. If you are asked to repeat something, please do so with a smile, using different words if necessary. Effective communication requires effort from both sides.
Ask how you can help.
Hearing loss is complex and what is helpful for one person in one setting, might not work for another or for the same person in a different setting. Each person is an expert on what works best for them, so let them drive the solution. This might include using assistive listening technology, especially in a noisy environment. Experiment with speech to text apps like Google’s Live Transcribe or mini microphones like Roger Pens that link to a person’s hearing aid. Enjoy the trial and error until you find a solution that works for both of you. Because hearing loss is invisible, it is easy to fall back into your regular speech patterns, but the more consistently you can implement the suggested fixes, the more pleasant the conversation will be for both sides.
Communicating with hearing loss can be challenging and exhausting, especially in loud and reverberant spaces. Public spaces are often not conducive to inclusive communication, but this could be beginning to change. As the population ages, hearing loss awareness will only grow, which may make solutions more readily available. Help keep your friends with hearing loss supported and engaged by taking the steps needed to help them hear.