I can’t change my hearing loss, but perhaps by reading this you can make some small changes to help others like me
Lynne Kelliher reflects on the impact of hearing loss at Christmas and what family and friends can do to help.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the impact of being hard of hearing in a social situation. I don’t claim to speak for all people with a hearing loss. This is just my experience, and in many respects, I am fortunate in that I can lip read (I’ve had a hearing loss since childhood). Many people lose their hearing in later life when learning to lip read is more difficult.
I’m not alone: RNID says that 12 million adults in the UK have some form of hearing loss. Hearing loss is an invisible disability, and those who live with it are more likely to suffer from loneliness, isolation, and mental health problems.
Social situations can be difficult for people with hearing loss. I do have a sense of humour but I often don’t hear the punch line. If I don’t laugh at your amusing anecdotes or jokes, the chances are I haven’t heard them. I really am interested in what you have to say but to “hear” I have to lip read, watch your body language and facial expressions, listen to the tone of your voice and process all this information in seconds.
Quite often I misunderstand what is being said, which is irritating for you and frustrating, embarrassing and isolating for me.
I often ask family and friends to repeat themselves but if I still don’t understand after the second or third go, I pretend I’ve understood and give a suitably neutral response and move on, none the wiser! I don’t hear the beginnings and ends of words, so for instance someone might have said height, blight, night, tight, right, or plight…
It is particularly mortifying when you confide in me or tell me something sad and I don’t give an appropriately sympathetic response.
I don’t cope well in a noisy environment, so sometimes I give up starting a conversation because I know I won’t hear the reply. This may make me seem aloof, standoffish, disinterested and unfriendly. I’m not! Background noises such as music, chairs scraping, television, traffic, feet on hard floors, the clatter of cutlery, crockery and machinery all make hearing almost impossible.
Dare I mention Christmas? For the hard of hearing this and other festive occasions brings anxiety and a feeling of social isolation to many people. For the hearing-impaired Christmas parties, office parties and family gatherings can be a nightmare. Please make allowances for this.
For instance, if you are organising a Christmas meal in a restaurant, choose somewhere that is not too noisy and poorly lit. Ask for the background music to be turned off (no one pays any attention to it anyway) and no dimmed lights. This will avoid problems with lip reading or body language which are always really important. I remember one occasion when I was sat at the end of a table and the noise was so loud that I couldn’t even have a conversation with the person next to me. I sat there like billy-no-mates for two hours – it was humiliating and lonely.
Staying with family over Christmas brings other challenges when you are trying to fit in with your relatives and their ways of living. I feel like Scrooge if I ask for the music (or TV) to be turned off and the main lighting to be switched on (I cannot lip read with just fairy lights on).
I’m sorry Father Christmas but would you mind trimming your beard before paying a visit, especially if you’re going to say something beyond Ho! Ho! Ho! I can’t lip read when your mouth is obscured by whiskers!
Certain activities work well for those struggling to hear. Games played at a table or in a circle of people are more inclusive for the hard of hearing (e.g. charades, board games and playing cards). However, at Christmas I accept it’s not just about me and I try to enjoy what I can.
The good news is I’m great in a one-to-one environment. I’m witty, articulate, interesting, sympathetic, empathetic, engaging and react appropriately. Who wouldn’t want to talk to me? I have lots of hobbies and subjects that fascinate me. I keep reasonably up to date with current and world events and cultural trends. I love hearing people tell me about their lives, experiences and stories. I’m curious about people and an active listener. Friends who know me well say I’m good company.
How to help
What, dear reader, can you do to help me and others?
RNID have created some Christmas tips for supporting deaf people and people with hearing loss, and these small changes can make a big difference. I would ask you to:
- Be patient and understanding.
- Seek me out in a quiet corner and talk to me.
- In a group of people make an effort to bring me into the conversation so I don’t feel so isolated.
- Give me space to say something without interruption so I can have a small part of the conversation.
- Don’t mumble, speak with your hand over your mouth or speak very quietly. You’d be surprised by the number of people who drop their voice when teasing or delivering a punch line only for it to fall on deaf ears, or result in a luke-warm response.
- Don’t give up on me. You can be sure that people who are hard of hearing won’t dominate the conversation in a large group.
- Place me at the centre of the table so I can hear and lip read other diners. Or ask me where I would prefer to sit as this will greatly improve my chances of following a conversation.
- Make sure you have good lighting and a quiet environment; to read lips you need to be able to see them clearly. Mood lighting is a deaf person’s nightmare. Ditto loud ambient music in the background.
- Please do not stand in front of a window or bright light. You will appear as a silhouette to me so I cannot lip read.
- If I ask you to repeat something do so calmly and without irritation.
- If I need to step away from the crowd, offer to keep me company on a one-to-one basis. I don’t necessarily want to be alone, but the exhaustion of following the conversation of many people can be overwhelming.
I repeat again this is my experience in a friendly setting. I’m luckier than many people in my situation. Other people with hearing loss will have their own needs and ways of coping. Ask them how you can help and make them feel more included and heard.