Helen Keller, author and political activist, was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Although she was isolated in her life, she was very much in touch with her inner and outside world and learned to communicate in seven languages. This ability gave her a powerful and sensitive voice of wisdom and reason that is universally revered despite her perceived dis-abilities. She became a prolific write and campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and other humanitarian causes. Mark Twain claimed that her renown would endure a thousand years.
The richness of her essence resonates with many of us as we reflect upon her deep understandings of communication and connection. She wrote:
“The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex (if not more important) than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”
“Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Keller experienced total exclusion from the world beyond anything any of us can imagine and certainly before technological advances could assist her in integrating into a vital life.
Consider these thoughts when communicating with your loved one, friend, colleague or neighbor who has a hearing loss. We are capable beyond imagination and measure, yet often misunderstood. It just takes an understanding, and patient learning to be sensitive and take a mere moment to pause to engage with one who is trying, with great effort, to keep up with dialog and connection, through no fault of their own.
For those of us with hearing loss, challenges to communicate with our loved ones and colleagues are often problematic. Background noise, cross talk, multiple simultaneous conversations, rapid communication of speech patterns, add to the discord of sound, rapid communications of speech (particularly with today’s youth) making language difficult to process. Speaking louder is often not the solution for most of us. It’s not that we’re hearing things softly, but with external “white-noise” makes it difficult to discern the subtlety of vowels being spoken that are the sticky glue that holds a word together.
Here are some tips to help those with hearing loss integrate in your conversations and connect more richly. If you try to employ a few of these techniques you may find less stress, frustration as repetition of communication may be unnecessary
- Get our attention first. Sometimes just speaking our name will do the trick as they may be distracted by other discordant sounds or preoccupied with focusing on another task. This holds true for anyone you wish to communicate with. When we turn towards you, you have our full attention as we’re tuned into your frequency.
- A hearing-impaired individual may “listen with their eyes.” Always speak face-to-face and make eye contact whenever possible and not turn your head while speaking as this helps with reading lips and body language.
- Sound is directional. If you turn your head in another direction, or downward, the sound current will flow in that direction and make lip- reading impossible. Always face the person to speak. Not only is it polite, it will help so you will not need to repeat yourself.
- Although well meaning, please do not whisper in one ear. Whispered sounds in any environment may be inaudible.
- When we ask for clarification, please do not dismiss us with a comment of “never mind” and a wave of the hand. If the comment was important the first time spoken, a moment of patience may be needed to ensure that the person is engaged. Being dismissed may be quite hurtful and often results in the person further isolating from conversation and relationships and give the appearance of “checking out.”
- Words are energy in motion – choose your words wisely. When harsh words are spoken the brain processes words to thoughts, to feelings, to emotions, desires, actions and habits that if not addressed, will become life-long patterns for better or worse.
- When in groups, perhaps use a “talking stick.” Commonly known as a speaker’s staff, found in indigenous tribes, and is held by an individual to present their point of view without interruption. After the person concludes their commentary, the stick is passed to the next person. Only the person holding the stick is permitted to speak. This is quite effective in book clubs, and small groups where there may be a tendency for others to interject commentaries or thinking what they want to convey, while a person is formulating thoughts to communicate.
- If you speak to your loved one from another room, chances are we will not be able to engage. Frustrations result.
Consider this: the most important word of a sentence is the last …
All of us are continually putting together word-puzzles. While there are various degrees of hearing loss, the words may process in our brain at slightly slower rate. The last word ties the sentence puzzle together. So, if your voice drops at the end of the sentence, if you mumble, or you turn your head while speaking the entire puzzle may not be able to be put together into a coherent picture.
From personal experience what skills have you found that help others understand how best to communicate with your hearing loss?
The next blog post will begin to speak about other modalities that will help you and your family member maintain cognitive health, vitality and wellness with or without hearing loss.