As an audiologist, I’m often surprised how people with perfect hearing and vision can be really bad at spotting certain things, even when they’re right in front of their eyes.
At some point, for example, almost all of us will have failed to notice we’re speaking to someone with a hearing problem. After all, if they’re not using sign language or wearing an old-fashioned hearing aid, the so-called ‘invisible disability’ is usually just that. Invisible. So most of us carry on regardless, assuming everyone else can hear what we’re saying just fine.
But is that a fair assumption to make? Today, 11 million people in this country live with hearing problems. That means one in six people you bump into on the street, chat to at the supermarket, or meet in your day-to-day life has difficulty hearing what you’re saying. One in six. That’s a huge number.
Imagine living in a society where 15% of the population needed a wheelchair to get around, yet there are virtually no access ramps and the other 85% don’t even seem to recognise the problem. It sounds outrageous, almost laughable, but that is the world in which many hearing-impaired people live. Feeling isolated, outcast and constantly struggling to hold their own in a world of one-sided conversations.
It’s time to open our eyes and ears
This year, Deaf Awareness Week falls on May 14th – 20th. Like deafness as a whole, it would be all too easy to ignore or let this event slip under your radar. But everyone reading this, especially those of you with perfect hearing, please take the opportunity to become just a little more deaf aware.
It really doesn’t take much and you might be surprised how much difference you make with even the smallest effort. Because just as someone with a hearing problem might retreat into their shell following a difficult conversation, a positive interaction can do wonders for their mood and self-esteem.
How you can take part in Deaf Awareness Week
Chances are you already know at least one person with a hearing problem or who is partially or fully deaf. A good place to start is by asking yourself whether you could be a more patient friend or relative to them. Have you ever taken the time to consider the emotional turmoil they’ve been through as a result of their hearing? Fear, anger, and denial may very well have been part and parcel of their journey. If they’ve never shared this with you, then perhaps they also feel embarrassed about their hearing problem.
I’m not saying you should make a big issue of it. Just be mindful of the challenges they’ve had to face and try to see the world from their perspective. They probably find the conversation a lot more frustrating than you do, so try to make things as simple as possible. Focus wholeheartedly on talking to them rather than chattering away while juggling a bunch of other tasks. If possible, communicate face-to-face rather than over the phone. Oh, and be courteous and take a moment to switch off the radio or TV.
My 10 do’s and don’ts
I consciously didn’t add “when talking to people with hearing problems” to that heading, because you can use these tips in all your conversations. After all, being a better communicator is something that can enrich every part of our lives.
Do maintain eye contact – The visual centre of our brains is much larger than the auditory centre. So even if someone is having difficulty hearing you, chances are they’ll be able to process the shapes of the words as you mouth them, your facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. By maintaining eye contact, you’ll make sure your entire face is visible and help the person you’re talking to find meaning in more than your words.
Do use their name to grab attention – Have you ever missed the start of a conversation, then spent ages trying to catch up or fill in the blanks? This is an everyday occurrence for people with hearing problems, so make sure you have their attention before you say anything important.
Do warm up to a change of topic – Conversations naturally meander from one subject to another but this can be quite disorienting if you’re working overtime to keep up. To help avoid confusion, you can simply say something like “I know we were talking about our holiday plans, but now let’s talk about something different – I’m thinking about learning to play the drums.”
Do explain your interruptions – Hear someone knocking at the door? Just remembered you’ve left the oven on? Before you run off, explain what you’re doing and make sure it’s been understood. This is especially important during a phone conversation when a break in the conversation could easily sound like you’ve hung up.
Do think about your environment – As well as turning down background noise, it’s also good to think about places you visit. Booking a table at the busiest restaurant in town on Saturday evening might sound like fun. But I guarantee you’ll have a better time if you choose somewhere peaceful and brightly lit.
Don’t exaggerate your lip movements – Or speak vveerryy sslloowwllyy. Many people are guilty of doing this to try and help people understand. But it just distorts your words and makes them even more confusing.
Don’t cover your mouth while talking – It sounds obvious but a lot of us do this unconsciously. It could be a useful experiment to consciously observe your mannerisms. If you notice yourself leaning on your arm or rubbing your lip, just note that you’re making your face harder to read and compromising the visual sense for someone with a hearing impairment
Last but not least, if you want to get fully involved with Deaf Awareness Week, why not learn some basic sign language? This could open up a whole new way of communicating with hearing-impaired people in your life. What’s more, you might well find yourself making new friends who you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to break the ice with. If someone you’re close to is coming to terms with hearing problems, you could even consider learning together. You can find out more learning to sign on the British Sign Language website.
Are you living with impaired hearing?
If you are interested in learning more about how you can improve your hearing health and live a richer happier life, then please get in touch. At Sevenoaks Hearing, we provide a bespoke hearing service, using state-of-the-art technology to provide an accurate diagnosis and an effective solution. As we are independent of any manufacturer, we can also provide the best solution for your lifestyle. Find out about our hearing assessments and treatment services.
Written by Matt Canon, Lead Audiologist at Sevenoaks Hearing. Visit our independent hearing centres in Sevenoaks, Banstead and East Grinstead or book an appointment now.