With around five percent of the world’s population living with significant hearing loss, there’s a good chance you know someone who’s Deaf or hard of hearing.
Communication is an essential part of life, but for Deaf and hard of hearing people, it’s often a frustrating and isolating experience. But there are many simple ways that all of us can be more inclusive of the Deaf community and make their lives that little bit easier.
Here are three simple ways you can do just that:
1. Try to understand Deafness
There are many shades of deafness. Some people were born deaf, while others became so later in life – presenting different challenges for each. The former may be less adept at lip reading, while the latter may still be new to sign language.
Then there are different forms of deafness. Some Deaf people can’t hear anything at all, while others might be able to hear a conversation, or any variation in between. The American Speech-language-Hearing Association outlines three basic forms of hearing loss depending on what part of the ear – the inner, middle our outer – is damaged:
1. Conductive hearing loss
This is when sound can’t travel through the outer and middle ear, which can happen for a variety of reasons, including ear infection, fluid in the middle ear or a perforated eardrum. Soft sounds are difficult to hear, while louder sounds may be muffled. Conductive hearing loss can often be cured with medical treatment or surgery.
2. Sensorineural hearing loss
This is the most common form of permanent hearing loss that’s caused by damage to the inner ear or the nerve pathway to the brain. Illness, a family history of hearing loss, aging or exposure to loud noises can cause sensorineural hearing loss, among other causes.
Soft sounds are often difficult to hear, and even loud sounds may be unclear or muffled. In most cases, medical treatment or surgery can’t fix sensorineural hearing loss.
3. Mixed hearing loss
This is when someone suffers conductive and sensorineural hearing loss at the same time. There is damage to both the outer or middle ear, as well as the inner ear or the nerve pathway to the brain. The damage to the inner ear (the sensorineural component) is typically permanent, but damage to the outer ear (the conductive hearing loss) may not be.
2. Recognize the signs that someone can’t hear you
It’s often hard to tell if someone is deaf or hard of hearing. Here are some signs that may help you notice. Someone may:
- Ask you to repeat phrases or words
- Seem confused while in conversation
- Appear to be ignoring you
- Pay close attention to your facial expressions
- Communicate with hand gestures that you don’t understand
- Be wearing a hearing aid or cochlear implant
When attempting to communicate with a Deaf or hard of hearing person, it’s important to understand that each person may communicate differently. Some may use sign language (of which there are many regional varieties), lip-read or use an interpreter. They may use all of these, or none at all. While some might still be able to hear a conversation.
3. Speak clearly and without exaggeration
For the deaf and hard of hearing, communicating with hearing people requires significant focus and energy. Research reveals that lip readers can only decipher around 40% of sounds in the English language – and that’s only when conditions are good. Add a moustache or accents, and lip reading is even harder.
Communicating with a hearing person is often daunting. It’s important to be patient when speaking to a Deaf or hard of hearing person. You may be required to repeat, rephrase, backtrack or find a different word. Speak clearly, slowly and steadily. Try and use hand gestures, but don’t go overboard.
Smiling, eye contact, and body positioning are critical. So too is ensuring you’re in a well-lit setting so the person can effectively lip read. Try and be at their eye level – if they sit, do so as well. And while it may seem like it could help, exaggerating your words actually distorts communication.
You can also communicate by writing, which some Deaf and hard of hearing people prefer. If you don’t have a pad and pencil, you can always use your phone.