Hearing Vibes: “I’m Sorry, What Did You Say?” The Invisible Disability

Tiggy Shields

People in our U.S. culture are generally sensitive to folks who struggle with physical disabilities. We don’t want to do or say anything that is embarrassing or hurtful. Usually, we will just ignore any direct attention to a wheelchair, for example. Knowing what to do to offer any assistance, if appropriate, is easily seen. However, hearing loss seems to be the most difficult impairment for hearing folks to readily acknowledge, accept, and deal with.

If you have good hearing, you face three problems when talking with a hearing challenged individual: the handicap is invisible; to communicate effectively this hearing loss can’t be ignored; and, other than speaking louder, which often doesn’t help, it’s difficult to know what will.

Last year in their article, “Both Hearing Impaired: A Couples Journey,” Walt and Tiggy Shields acknowledged that it’s difficult to always remember the helpful and thoughtful ways to communicate. “Even with us our best intentions for patience and clarity have led to failure, hurt feelings, frustration, and discouragement.”

Are you perplexed about how better to communicate with your spouse, partner, or neighbor who has the invisible disability? Here are several important tips to increase success for you and folks like me, even when I wear hearing aids:

(1) First catch my attention, then look at me when you speak so I can see your face and mouth. In this current pandemic, mask-wearing has obviously made comprehension an even greater challenge for me since I also get assistance seeing your facial expression and watching your lips.

(2) Speak clearly and distinctly. Slowing down helps. Many people speak too fast, too softly, or they mumble.

(3) Rephrase. If you say something several times I just don’t understand, please use other words.

(4) Let me know clearly when you change the subject (especially in a group setting) since I depend a great deal on context to understand a faster paced conversation.

(5) If you try to speak with me and I don’t respond, please know I am not being rude or ignoring you. I just didn’t hear (understand) you.

(6) Names of places, people, and numbers are very difficult for me to understand.

Nearly two years ago a small group of SaddleBrooke residents gathered to talk about the challenges they face as hearing-impaired folks in a hearing world. In the months that followed, under the inspired leadership of Jennifer Jefferis, The Discussion Group for Better Hearing has offered support, education, and resources via monthly (now Zoom) meetings, SB newspaper articles, speakers, and advocacy. Through transparent and impassioned articles, six members have spoken about their journey and challenges, offering encouragement to people who face hearing loss (which statistically suggests one-third of our SB community) to become informed, proactive, and seek help.

So, for you as part of our hearing community, thanks for reading. My understanding improves with your understanding.

To learn more about the Discussion Group for Better Hearing, contact either Jennifer Jefferis at [email protected], or by phone at 360-909-6212, or Maria Menconi at [email protected] For a Zoom meeting sign-up, contact Maria. Upcoming Zoom meetings: Thursdays 10 a.m., Jan. 14, Feb. 11, and March 10.

Resource used: Max K. Kennedy, November/December 1986 issue of Shhh, published by Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, Inc.