Living with a hearing loss during the pandemic
You know those moments when you are surrounded by lots of noise and conversation is at best like trying to do a 1000-piece puzzle in a minute?
As a person who is hard of hearing, I’ve found myself struggling in quite a few of such situations:
Having to muster up the courage to ask people for a third (or, sometimes fourth & fifth) time to repeat what they have just said or taking the risk of being found out, only to have a new conversation partner frown at me and say: “No, I meant what is your age, not your wage!”.
Or those situations where I have also been told that, quite frankly, I am shouting, and upon looking around, finding that everyone else is not quite speaking as loud.
Other times I’ve found that people speak inaudibly soft, which is fine if you are closer than half a metre. However, not so much in the current pandemic.
To cope with hearing less than a ‘normal’ person, I lipread to make up for missing sounds.
While this does not work the same way for people with severe hearing loss who use sign language, I get by using lipreading as one of my methods to ‘compensate’ for hearing less than others.
Lipreading is perhaps best explained as the use of clues other than speech, such as facial expressions, to gain an understanding of what is being said.
This means that if I cannot see well, I consequently cannot hear well either.
As when I lipread, I am able to ‘see’ what is being said and eliminate any confusion about what I just heard.
It has also been said that lipreading is not precise because some sounds and words look very similar and because it relies so much on the lipreader’s own background knowledge of language and on the quality of speech of the speaker.
Though I must say, lipreading is a different experience when you grew up learning English through American tv shows and you all of a sudden find yourself trying to decipher Northern English accents!
While lipreading is an essential coping strategy for me, my hearing loss made me pay attention to non-auditory cues that hearing people may not always consciously pick up on when communicating.
One of those cues is body language. Is the person you are talking to tense, relaxed, stressed or tired?
Another one is response: Is someone genuinely listening to this person’s story, responding to what the person said or are they just waiting to speak?
Ironically, more often than not, people lose their concentration during conversation and unconsciously use fillers to maintain the appearance of listening. As a result, they are not actually listening to what is being said. This lack of concentration is even worse when you have a hearing loss and this is known as concentration fatigue.
According to researchers from University of California, whenever we process information, our hearing accounts for 11% of processing incoming information. This is not a lot, given that sight accounts for 83%.
What happens when that 11% is affected or is completely removed?
You need to process information with all remaining senses and whatever is left of your hearing.
This can be… strenuous. Especially when you are a student and have 3-hour lectures at 9am and all you do is listen. Or you attend online meetings and you have to be ON all the time.
I was born with congenital hearing loss (hearing loss from birth) and I am therefore heavily reliant on visual information. Another type of hearing loss is acquired hearing loss, which means you lost your hearing at a later stage. There are many different types explained in our lexicon.
Now, why is any of this important?
In 10 facts about deafness and hearing loss I discuss how little is invested in hearing research. The impact of the pandemic on the deaf and people with hearing loss, also affects businesses.
How many people are struggling because they cannot fully participate in hours of Zoom calls with hearing colleagues, because of the tonnes of inaccessible online events? How many businesses miss out on business from deaf people and people with hearing loss because of face masks that make communication a hassle?
At the onset of the pandemic, the world digitalised at the speed of lightning.
For those with accessibility needs, long awaited changes to remote working finally became reality.
However, this development should not be confused with the world having become more accessible.
As the world has not become more accessible for all.
In my industry I have found this to be particularly important information for researchers conducting accessibility research.
People with hearing loss ‘hear’ with a lot more than just their ears, and in this means they need a lot more than audio to be done right for effective communication in-session.
They need other ‘cues’.
Furthermore, the introduction of face masks has left a lot of people struggling to communicate, which greatly affects their ability to access products and services greatly. This struggle does not just apply to people with hearing loss, but unfortunately also other vulnerable people.
Just like not a single person will be disadvantaged by effective communication, not a single person will be disadvantaged by accessible services and products. So really it is a win-win.
When you look up skills on effective communication, empathy usually makes the list.
At this point empathy may be considered a buzzword, but it really should not be when it comes to communication skills. Empathy is the glue that connects us to one another, therefore creates better products and services and better businesses overall. Empathy could convince that one customer to buy your product, or could motivate that one colleague that was struggling to finish a daunting task. Empathic GPs have also been shown to increase health outcomes for their patients.
In summary, empathy is an essential communication skill.
However, in researching the accessibility of products and services, expertise of research participants should be prioritised over empathy.
While I am not an expert on design, I am an expert in living with a hearing loss and hope that empathy will motivate researchers to do more research on deafness and hearing loss by listening to people with experiential knowledge.
With the current lack of research in deafness & hearing loss, hopefully the time has come for this to receive the much-needed attention.
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