Tips for Hard of Hearing People in the Workplace

Tips for Hard of Hearing People in the Workplace

by Cheryl Heppner

Editor: Here’s another article that tells you how much better your life will be if you take charge of your hearing loss. The article is Cheryl Heppner’s report on Beth Wilson’s workshop at the SHHH Convention. Read on for some great tips on how to improve your workplace experience.

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Twenty years ago, when Beth had her newly minted college degree, she was one of the rare women in engineering. She worked at Raytheon for 18 years, served as Executive Director of SHHH, and then was hired back to work in the same building, where she works with a whole new crop of hearing people. Her goal in this workshop was to show others how they can make the workplace more accessible and how they can use humor as a tool. Here is some of her wisdom:

Hearing loss is not our problem. It is something we share with everyone we try to communicate with.

Myths and Assumptions

It’s important to educate our employer and co-workers about myths and assumptions.

– “Hard of hearing is not just less deaf.” Beth joked that there are three broad categories for hearing loss: Deaf, hard of hearing, and ‘my spouse thinks I can’t hear’ (for those in denial). She describes how hard of hearing people hear, “We go to the same place, we are just a lot more tired when we get there.” She’s found that in her field, where her co-workers use a lot of technical language, they understand when she talks about active vs. passive listening if she compares it to active and passive sonar.

– Lipreading is not what Hollywood would have you think; you can only see 30% of what is said on the lips. Vowels are easier to understand that consonants. When asked “can you lipread?” she responds “only if I want to get in trouble.” Lipreading is successful only if you have three things: the person never moves, you know all the words they’re going to say, and the words are predictable. Everyone who depends on speechreading for help in communication knows that you can be understanding a person perfectly, and then suddenly like a switch you understand nothing. You miss a key word and as your brain tries frantically to figure it out, you can’t make any sense of the rest.

– Hearing aids do not cure hearing loss

– Useable volume and background noise will influence how well you can understand. Hard of hearing people hear some frequencies and some volumes. Our hearing doesn’t change; the environment does. Beth talked about how she could be watching TV and need someone to speak at what, on a volume control, would be level #8 in order to be understood clearly. But when she’s reading a newspaper, she would need only a level #3 to ignore her newspaper. Everything in between can be useless. This peculiarity with hearing loss can lead co-workers to misunderstand what is needed — there are different volumes that help us hear, understand, and concentrate. Perpetuating this misunderstanding can lead to horrors like “we’ll stick her next to the copy machine, it won’t bother her because she’s hard of hearing.”

Help People Know What You Need

The most important thing is to let people know your needs. Describe your hearing loss sooner rather than later so that people won’t make wrong assumptions. Beth’s technique is:

For one on one situations, “before we get started….”

For group situations, “my name is Beth and you should know…”

She includes specifics — “to understand, I need to see the speaker,” “I can hear low tones”

She sets up meetings before they start so she can communicate best — “all those with lipreading impediments that you call beards must sit on the other side of the table.”

Inconsistency is what gets us in trouble. It is hard for people to understand why we can communicate well sometimes but not others. Beth has come up with what accommodations she needs for specific situations:

For one on one conversations, she uses hearing aids

For meetings with less than 7 people she knows, she uses hearing aids, plus “The Rules”

For meetings with less than 7 new people, she uses hearing aids with an audioloop system

For meetings with a large group, one speaker, she uses hearing aids plus FM system

For meetings with a large group and a lot of discussion, she uses hearing aids and an interpreter or CART

Setting Up Your Work Space

Move your furniture so you can work without distraction, not be startled by a visitor, and see visual signals. Beth set up the visitor’s chair in her office so that people are positioned for her to hear the best.

Understanding answering machine messages is difficult. Beth puts this on her answering machine, “Because I am hard of hearing, I need you to speak clearly and state your name and number slowly. If I am not familiar with your name and it is more complicated than my name, it is helpful if you spell it out. Thanks.”

At Meetings

Speak up about the seating arrangements. Tell people that you need to be seated away from the noise of the projector and where there is no light glaring in your eyes. Be up front about your needs. Tell people that you need the lights up and ask who is speaking.

When there is someone who is difficult for you to hear, ask them to sit closer. Ask that the main speaker sit closer. Set up rules of conduct and ask speakers to identify themselves, talk one at a time, use the microphone, etc. Beth makes it humorous to lay down the rules, saying something like “let me explain how you hearing people are to behave.” In the case of a dead hearing aid battery, she says “wait…power outage” and everyone pauses while she puts in another.

One of the audience asked Beth if anyone has ever complained about the rules. She answered that the rules benefit everybody and people actually tell her that meetings go smoother when she’s there.

Ask before you go to a meeting so you have the right expectation and know what accommodations you will need. How many people will be speaking? How close will I be able to sit? Will any videos be shown? Is the format lecture, discussion, or something else?

Beth recommends using the Americans with Disabilities Act as a tool, not a weapon, unless you are under attack. Explain how some accommodation will help you do the job the same as others, improve productivity, etc.

Accommodations

Technology can be your best line of defense. FM systems coupled with hearing aids, such as the Phonak Microlink or Oticon Lexis are a big help in group situations and noisy settings. If you don’t have such a system, directional mics run about $1,000-2,000. Examples are Link-It (www.etymotic.com) or D-Hear (www.isl.stanford.edu/~widrow).

Personal amplifications are also helpful. There are a number of companies with hand-held microphones that connect with an earpiece or audioloop. These are portable, easy to use, and can move from speaker to speaker quickly. Cost is $100-200.

FM equipment uses FM signals, a microphone near a speaker, and a wireless receiver. They can be used outside. Beth uses one called the Easy Listener”. She doesn’t ask people to use them. Instead she says, “I need you to wear this,” which doesn’t give them the option of saying no. FM systems can be used outdoors and run $500-800.

Infrared equipment uses infrared light signals, a microphone near the speaker connected to an infrared transmitter, and a wireless receiver (earpiece or loop). Personal systems cost about $200 and large systems are in the range of $1,000 and up.

Inductive loops run from $300-$1,000. A magnetic field is established to transmit the signal. You receive the signal through a telecoil switch in your hearing aid, or a personal loop.

Sign language interpreters and CART cost from $50-150 per hour. Beth says to view them as “a ramp with installment payments”. Make sure your company pays for interpreters or CART from a human resources or other budget. It’s not fair to have to ask the person responsible for your raise to have these provided.

Remote options are growing and may bring a lot of promise in the future with relay services such as video relay, CapTel, and remote captioning and interpreters.

— Cheryl Heppner

(c) 2003 Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons