The holidays are upon us! … and a few million people have just let out a collective groan. Not for the crowds at the mall. Not for the overspending. Not even for the 10 pounds of holiday weight we might gain. For millions (yes millions!) of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, the holidays can can exacerbate the difficulties we face communicating in groups. Now, I encourage people to be open about their hearing levels. When I explain to someone that I can’t hear and tell them exactly what helps me understand them better, it usually improves the situation (at least a little). But let’s face it, we may only see some of these folks once or twice a year and may certainly be hesitant expressing our communication needs to them. So, in the spirit of the holidays, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite tips for a communication-friendly environment.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well I don’t know anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing.” Are you sure? I was hard of hearing all my life and a lot of people didn’t know (they may have just thought I was very strange – nope, just deaf!). For many people hearing loss is also gradual. Since it may have been awhile since you saw Aunt Sue, her hearing level may have changed since then. Cousin Gary’s bringing his new girlfriend. You don’t know much about her, but your mother thought she was a little “aloof”. The fact is, many people are not so forthcoming about their own hearing loss.
Nevertheless, when it’s your turn to host the gathering, take the initiative. By knowing some key points, you’ll be going a long way in making your guests feel more comfortable.
Here’s 10 things You Can Do To Keep a Deaf-and-Hard-of-Hearing-Friendly House This Holiday Season:
- Keep it quiet. Not always possible with big crowds of people celebrating, but you CAN keep the background music off or set very low. People with difficulty hearing or hearing aid wearers tend to hear background noise louder than say the voice of the person they are trying to speak with. It will probably be noisy enough with several conversations going on. Hearing aids are not effective as your brain at filtering out sounds, so it helps when there’s not a lot of additional noise competing with what we’re trying to hear. Not everyone wants to rock out, anyway.
- Keep a clear line of sight. Avoid tall flower arrangements, bigger centerpieces or candles set in the middle of the table. Most people look to visuals such as the speaker’s mouth and body language to assist with communication. If they are straining to look over a busy centerpiece or around some candles, it can be extra challenging for sure. Leave the most decorative items to the mantelpiece or the corners on the room.
- Keep it merry and BRIGHT. Keep the area well lit. No need to turn on the search lights, but for the same reasons as above, if someone is straining to see, they might not be able to “hear” you!
- Stay engaged. Face someone when speaking to them. Try and keep coversations as 1:1 as possible. Don’t try to communicate from across the room. Walk over to them if possible and lightly touch their arm as you address them. A number of times I’ve looked away for a moment only to turn back and find several people looking at me waiting for my response to a question. Of course then I have to ask what the question was. Yep, DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS.
- Stay relaxed. Don’t over-enunciate or shout. Lipreading really is an art and can be best understood when someone speaks normally. Over-enunciating or shouting tends to distort what is being said and thus, what is understood. Not to mention, it’s off-putting. Even totally deaf people know when you are shouting. No one likes being yelled at. Speak at a normal tone and pace unless someone asks you to speak slower or louder. I’ve had people speak to me knowing I read lips and completely turn off their voices. That was weird! That must’ve been the only time in my life I’ve said, “What?! Speak up!”
- Keep communication-friendly seating. If using place settings, put the person who has hearing loss at the end or on a corner. If your head is only turned one way, you have a chance of picking up more visual cues than if you are constantly having to turn your head from side to side to follow the conversation. Also, if a window is on one side of the table, try and put the person on the side that has the window (if the event is in the daytime). If they are constantly looking at someone with a window behind them, it may be harder to lipread them.
- Talk with your hands. Casually hold up how many fingers when you call out the numbers doing a white elephant gift exchange. Point to where the restroom is. Do it consistently for everyone. And here it goes without saying, DON’T cover your mouth when talking. Unless you’re eating! Then again, it’s a good time to practice not talking AND eating. Please, there’s nothing worse than trying to lipread someone with their mouth full!
- Kepp the captions ON. It really DOESN’T cover up the score. If people will be watching a TV (football!), turn the captions on before the guests arrive. Then hide the remote in the garage. If someone should find it and turn off the captions, go ahead and mute the sound. Just kidding. Not really.
- Keep writing utensils handy. Discreetly keep things to write on in each room such as a small dry erase board or little post it notepads and pens. If someone is struggling to understand, having it within arm’s reach while the conversation is still alive is great. One of the biggest pet peeves of many deaf or hard of hearing people is being told, “Nevermind” when asking for clarification. And if in this case, if you have to go searching for something to write with, it’s more likely it’ll seem like too much trouble. It’s easy to just grab something. Or you can be a tech geek. Use your cell phone to type out a word or use voice recognition like Siri on an iphone or iPad.
- Stay positive. Do what you can, but know you can’t do everything. Keep in mind, there will be some factors that will be beyond your control. The acoustics of a room play a big part of how well we hear in it. High ceilings and rooms with a lot of marble or glass are particularly challenging. There will be chatter in the room, songs being sung, people talking over each other. You can only do so much. Plus, for many of us, we’re quite used to not understanding every word said in the room. And it’s ok. Really!
So, here’s to the holidays. Whether you choose to incorporate some of these ideas, or use them all, trust me, your guests with hearing loss will appreciate visiting your deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-friendly home!