This morning I had a hearing aid fitted. I was anxious as I’d not left my house at all since 20 April due to the vulnerable members of my household.
As I headed to my local hospital’s audiology department, I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. The streets were empty of pedestrians, but the roads were busy.
I was born with hearing difficulties. Countless operations and appointments over decades failed to make any lasting difference. I moved from Essex to West London 11 years ago and haven’t had a regular Consultant as a result.
I got into the habit of compensating my hearing loss through lip reading and didn’t think much of it as it’s become a way of life.
However, last year I started the process of being assessed and having regular appointments again. I was due to have the aid fitted in March this year, but as the NHS was under pressure and the UK was about to go into lockdown, the appointment was postponed.
As I am typing this, I can hear the keys. I’ve never heard the keys. I can also hear the clock ticking next to me, a bird outside my window and the mouse clicking. There’s another noise I’ve not placed yet, it could be coming from above me or outside. I’m still figuring out what sounds are and the direction I’m hearing them from, it’s rather strange.
As someone who communicates for a living and spends my life helping others learn how to improve their communication, my hearing has always been frustrating.
Whenever I talk at conferences I always encourage people to wait for microphones to ask me questions. I’m mindful it’s not just me who won’t hear their shouted question, but others in the audience with hearing loss too. Over the past six months (pre-lockdown) I’d started to admit to my in-person Masterclass attendees that I struggle to hear and encouraged them to be aware I may ask them to repeat questions or move their hands from their mouths so I can read their lips. The loss got increasingly worse over the past year and led to me taking action.
For some reason there is a stigma attached to hearing aids in a way that getting glasses doesn’t have. I certainly don’t blog to tell you when I’ve been to the opticians or had my prescription renewed! As my hearing loss has worsened, I’ve had to wear my glasses more to help me lip read.
Today feels like day one. I’ve heard sounds today I’ve never experienced, including car indicators in the taxi on the way home from the hospital, the zip on my bag and my own footsteps. My trainers made a squeaking sound on the hospital floor I hadn’t heard on the way in. As I left audiology and clocked the noise, I turned around to see what/who it was, only to find there was no one there. It took me a moment to figure out the sound was coming from my own feet!
It feels like I’m finally able to communicate, and apart from being an overwhelming (and loud!) feeling, it’s liberating.
Trying to lip read people through masks is impossible, I haven’t been out much at all since lockdown, but the couple of trips I’d made to the pharmacy or local shop had left me in tears as I couldn’t communicate. Being a Comms practitioner who couldn’t communicate… well I’m sure you understand how that made me feel!
Only last week I was having a 1-2-1 VIP session with a client and had to ask him to please turn his fan off as the background noise meant I couldn’t hear him through my headphones.
Hearing loss in the UK
I’m not alone. According to Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID), there are 12 million people with hearing loss across the UK, that’s around one in six of us. The charity estimates by 2035 there’ll be around 14.2 million people with hearing loss across the UK. There are 50,000 children with hearing loss in the UK, around half are born with hearing loss while the other half lose their hearing during childhood. An estimated 900,000 people have severe or profound hearing loss and 7.1 million people in the UK living with tinnitus.
Action on Hearing Loss is the national charity helping people confronting deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss to live the life they choose. The charity says it enables them to take control of their lives and remove the barriers in their way, giving people support and care, developing technology and treatments, and campaigning for equality.
Thank you to the charity for helping me to prepare. I picked up some leaflets last time I was in the audiology department and found their website useful to help me know what to expect.
For the first time in my life I can hear! I had a hearing aid fitted today and have heard sounds I’ve never experienced – car indicators, bag zip, footsteps. Thank you @ActionOnHearing for helping me prepare. Lip reading through masks = impossible. I’m thankful for my new normal. pic.twitter.com/6nZlN3geer
— Rachel Miller, All Things IC (@AllthingsIC) June 11, 2020
I’m going to share their advice, you can find lots more on their website. But if you have people returning to work and wearing masks, make sure you’re aware of the impact it will have on your employees who have hearing loss. If, like me, they rely on lip reading and don’t have an aid, their ability to communicate is now severely restricted.
My advice? Ask employees who have hearing loss to help you determine the right approach. Work alongside HR and publish guidance to help everyone communicate. It’s far better to come from a peer-to-peer approach than an HR policy.
Have you done this in your organisation? I’d love to know some great examples. As ever, feel free to contact me below or find me on Twitter @AllthingsIC.
Communication tips via Action on Hearing Loss
You can download the posters on this page via their website.
Make people aware that you are deaf or have a hearing loss and your preferred communication style.
Where lip reading is possible:
- Make sure they face you
- Make sure you can see their face clearly
- Make sure the person gets your attention before they start speaking
- Ask them to speak normally and not exaggerate their lip movements
The below are particularly important when someone cannot use visual cues, such as on the telephone or when wearing a mask:
- Ask them to speak clearly
- Ask them to repeat or say things differently if you do not understand what they have said
- Reduce background noise as much as possible by moving to a quieter space if possible
- Use assistive devices like remote microphones with hearing aids to improve the quality of speech over background noise
- Write things down – use pen on paper, text on device screens or whiteboards
- If possible, ask them to speak to a relative or friend
If you struggle to communicate and think it may be your hearing, I encourage you to also ask for help. I’m only now realising just how much I’ve missed.
Post author: Rachel Miller.
First published on the All Things IC blog 11 June 2020.