How to communicate with someone with hearing loss

Hearing loss is the second largest disability, and an invisible one. Not only are there a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people about, but you cannot tell who they are.

It is estimated that there are 11 million people with hearing loss across the UK, that’s around one in six of us and of these there are 900,000 people who have severe or profound hearing loss. With such a large number of people having hearing loss it is essential to understand how to communicate with them effectively.

Someone with a hearing loss is not ignoring you and is not stupid. Their ears do not work but the rest of them – politeness, intelligence and so forth – is fine. Hearing loss is not something to joke about, to laugh at, to get irritated by, to use as an insult, or to feel sorry for.

What someone with hearing loss needs is courtesy, consideration and communication. Treat someone with a hearing loss as you yourself like to be treated. Speaking as someone who lived with hearing loss for many years, one of the most dispiriting things to happen to me was for someone to say, ‘Never mind it doesn’t matter’. It mattered to me!

When a person speaks, clues are gained not only from what is heard but also from what is seen. These clues complement and supplement each other, helping us to follow a conversation. For people with hearing loss the visual clues of speech become very important. Simple actions on your part, as the hearing person, may determine the ease with which these visual clues can be followed.

Thanks to What You Need To Know

What is the best way to communicate with a deaf person?

Communicating with people who have hearing loss is a little more demanding than speaking to a hearing person. There are some things you can do to enhance communication between you and someone who has a hearing loss.

Someone with a hearing loss may not know that you are speaking to them especially if in a noisy situation, so it’s important:

  • to find somewhere quiet to talk if possible (noisy places whether from people, machines etc make it difficult to hear; voices become drowned by the other noises. Carpets, curtains and soft furnishings help to absorb noise. More about good room acoustics.)
  • to make sure there is good light and keep the light on your face. If you sit with your back to the window then your face is in darkness making it difficult to lipread.
  • to gain their attention first (this is easily done by tapping them on the arm or shoulder, if appropriate – preferably from the front not behind them; or calling their name).

It is very useful to lipreaders to know the subject of the conversation so try to make the subject of the conversation as clear as possible.

It’s also good to be asked where it is best for us to sit in different situations. It will be different for different people, but most people like to sit with their back to a wall. At dinner parties some people prefer round tables and some people like to sit in the middle of group at the table.

It will be different for meetings, most of us like to sit at the front, near the speaker. A hearing loop system, working and switched on, makes such a difference to our ability to follow what is said in meetings. Also, some of us may have personal amplifiers which can be placed near the speakers for many events.

Using gestures and expression

Those of us who lipread, gain a lot of additional information from facial expressions and natural hand gestures. These are useful but do not exaggerate them. Unnecessary hand movements or any physical movements can be very distracting.

Many people try to help by shouting and by exaggerating the pronunciation of words. This does not help. People who wear hearing aids can experience extreme discomfort if people shout at them. It is better to speak clearly, a little more loudly than usual and not too fast. Shouting and over-mouthing words will alter the lip pattern and speaking too slowly will destroy the natural rhythm of speech.

It depends upon who you are speaking to, whether you need to use full sentences or not. If it is someone you know well, you may be able to use phrases that are well-known to you both but otherwise it is best to use full sentences rather than just short phrases as they are often easier to understand.

Those of us with hearing loss, like many other people, like to see the speaker’s eyes so it is important not to wear sunglasses while speaking. It is also important to remember to keep your face clearly visible and to keep your mouth clearly visible too. Many of us have habits of covering our mouths when speaking, this makes lipreading very difficult. You can’t lipread if you can’t see a person’s mouth.

Repeating or rephrasing what you say

Despite your best efforts there may be times when what has been said has not been understood by the lipreader. Repeat the sentence again if necessary and then perhaps rephrase what you want to say.

You may not be aware of this, but some words are more difficult to lipread than others. For example, the month of ‘March’ is easier to lipread than ‘August’. In the word ‘March’ the shapes making ‘M’ and ‘CH’ are visible on the lips, the components in ‘August’ are made inside the mouth, so there is nothing to see. There are many more examples of this when speaking.

It sometimes takes a while to process what has been lipread so give the person time to process what you have said – remember to check regularly that what you have said has been understood.

Do not walk away until you are sure that the message has been understood and your conversation is finished.

Sometimes it is necessary to write down any important facts.

Remember too that if the person with hearing loss is tired or has tinnitus this will also affect their ability to lipread well. Above all please be patient, we are trying our best and we really do want to talk to you!

If you take the trouble to talk to us, you may find that we have lots of interesting things in common.

Speaking clearly on the phone

When you’re calling someone with hearing loss, using a good phone technique will help them hear as much as possible. Make sure you speak directly into the phone’s mouthpiece (but don’t hold it too close) and remove as much background noise as you can.

Make sure they know who they are speaking to and what the conversation is about. Speak as clearly as you can and be prepared to be patient and to repeat what you have said. Using the telephone can be very daunting for someone with a hearing loss. Your support is so appreciated!

Ahmed’s 15 unhelpful things people say to deaf people

Ahmed Khalifa says, ‘Throughout my life, I’ve heard a variety of comments and crazy things that people say to deaf people. Even though I’m partially deaf, I get them too. Being hard of hearing is a pain, but as part of Deaf Awareness Week, I thought of doing a video about it, and what you should know if you ever meet me and others who are in similar situations.

So I thought of putting this video together to give you an idea of what not to say. Asking questions and understanding it is fine. But saying ridiculous things like “do you need Braille?” is not.’

For more videos about hearing loss from Ahmed, visit his YouTube channel.

Webpage reviewed: February 2023

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