Sometimes people treat me differently when they find out I’m hard of hearing. Their smiles freeze in discomfort, they find an excuse to leave the conversation, and they limit further interactions with me to “hello,” “how are you?” and “fine, thanks.” (I know we, as a people, just kind of do this to each other sometimes, regardless of our degree of hearing loss. But this happens too frequently to me and my deaf and hard of hearing friends to be a coincidence.) Please do not do this thing. I’m hard of hearing, yes, but I’m also a human person who wants to know and be known. Just like you.
Here are seven things I wish you knew about being hard of hearing.
(I wrote this with my local church family in mind, because that’s my most immediate context. But big-C Church family, this one’s for you, too. And you, gentle reader, with the grandma who’s losing her hearing or the co-worker who’s deaf, this is for you, too. Just keep in mind these are coming from my own experiences and preferences, which may or may not align with those of your congregant, grandma, or co-worker. When in doubt, just ask.)
Hearing loss isn’t only the absence of sound. I have severe-to-profound hearing loss, but with two hearing aids, I can hear some sounds but not understand them. For example, in a crowded restaurant, I’m not able to pick out the distinct sounds of clattering silverware, patrons talking, or the TV blaring. They all blend into one buzzing white noise. Sounds don’t make sense to me unless I have some kind of visual to go with it — closed captions, lipreading, and sign language help me make sense of the noise and feel included. Even technology meant for the masses, such as texting and email, have been a godsend (and hearing loss is a handy excuse to not make phone calls. And all God’s introverts said “Amen.”). What a time to be alive.
Please don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not less of a person for being hard of hearing. I’m actually OK with hearing loss itself. I hear nothing at all with my hearing aids out and silence IS golden, my friends. Turning my hearing aids off is like having my own personal mute button, which is exactly as amazing as it sounds. Y’all are LOUD sometimes.
You don’t have to know sign language to communicate with me. Yes, I sign, but I use my vocal cords more than my hands to communicate. If you know sign language and want to practice with or show it off to me, please do. If you don’t, just talk to me. I’m a lipreading ninja, but I need your help! Speak clearly. Don’t cover your mouth. Don’t over-enunciate. Don’t yell. Don’t mouth something unintelligible and then ask me what you said (I will side-eye you so hard.). Just make sure I can see your face when we’re talking and we should be good. If I can’t understand you, I’ll let you know, and if I’m just not grasping something, try rephrasing rather than repeating. That might do the trick.
Please include me in the group conversation. I communicate well one-on-one, but it’s a lot of work to keep up with a group larger than three or four people (so, most groups). I’m slow to speak up because I’m constantly trying to figure out if it’s OK to talk or if I’ll be accidentally interrupting someone. And I’m rarely 100% confident that I’m following the conversation topic correctly, so it means a lot if you ask me specific questions to include me (“We’re talking about the Royals game last night. What did you think of that play by Hosmer?” is super helpful.).
Along the same lines, please don’t assume I can’t participate in an activity. If you’re not sure how to include me, ask! I will make it easy for you; here’s a simple script to follow: “I’m planning to do XYZ at Bible study; is there anything I need to do or be aware of in order for you to participate fully?”
Sit with me. At church, or any other kind of lecture-style gathering, I almost always sit at the front, closest to the speaker(s). Will you join me there now and then? It gets lonely up there.
Head’s up. Most of us instinctively bow our heads to pray, but if I’m around, please keep your head up when you pray so I can read your lips.
I know there’s a lot more I haven’t covered, but I hope this prompts some meaningful conversations in your own circles. If you are D/deaf or hard of hearing, what would you add? If you are not, what else would you like to know? To the comments!