Should we speak LOUDER to deaf people?

loud shouting

How to understand what shouting is like to a deaf person

People with good hearing can get some understanding of the part that loudness, amplification and shouting play in deafness problems. Here are two ways:

1. Imagine that your sight is not perfect and that you are trying to read a book in poor lighting conditions without your glasses. Improving the lighting, would probably help somewhat, but would it make sense for the light to be made brighter and brighter on the assumption that once it was bright enough you would be able to see properly? Of course not. Similarly increasing the amplification of sound may help a deaf person to some extent, but for most hearing problems, that alone is not enough. In fact just as turning up the brightness of lighting can cause headaches and discomfort, so turning up the volume of sound can cause pain and distress.

2. Ask someone to listen to you while you say something loudly or shout. Do they think you are sounding aggressive? Voice projection may need to be practised.

Sound certainly does have to be loud enough for a deaf person to hear, but, all too often, that is only part of the problem as explained in the page on clarity and distortion.

However there are points worth making concerning the loudness of sound.

Loudness and better hearing

When a deaf person is asked if they 'can hear', they prob­ably say that they can, because they are aware that speech or music is going on. That sort of 'hearing' is not the same as understanding what is being said.

People with hearing loss tend to 'hear' the speech as a jumble of incoherent words, as if it were a foreign language. This is because speakers all too often 'swallow' the beginnings and ends of words (the consonants), i.e. say them at a much lower volume. Then all that is 'heard' are the middles of the words (the vowels) which are highly ambiguous because so many different words have the same vowel sounds and speakers with different regional accents pronounce their vowel sounds differently.

How to be understood by a deaf person without shouting

  • Do make sure that your speech and, if possible, that of others is adequately loud. This may mean reminding others in a group because the deaf person may think that it is inconsiderate to "keep on" about their own problems. Or of course the deaf person may be embarrassed if you speak for them. So some negotiation in advance may be in order.
  • 'Adequately loud' means projecting your voice and is not the same as shouting. Shouting always comes across as aggressive, and will make a deaf person feel even worse. Voice projection is a skill which all stage actors have to acquire and you may need to practise it.
  • As the position of the deaf person relative to whoever is speaking can make all the difference as to whether their voice sounds loud enough, do be considerate about this. (With my type of hearing loss, I always like to sit in the front row in talks and other presentations. That way I usually hear speakers, unless they move around, although I almost never hear the questions from the audience. Similarly I also like to sit in the middle of a group discussion rather than on its edge.)
  • Never, when addressing a group, ask in a loud voice if you can be heard at the back and then, when the good hearers shout back "yes", drop your voice to continue. It happens constantly.
  • See the other pages in the Hearing Problems menu, to alert yourself to the fact that speaking loudly is not all that a deaf person needs in order to understand you.

If volume levels at various pitches are the only problems, digital hearing aids can work wonders.

Technical note on loudness of sound

The level of a sound tends to be described in various ways by the general public, e.g. loudness, intensity or volume. Technically these are not the same thing, although the differences are of no importance in developing coping strategies for the deaf. The 'loudness' of a sound can be recognised by the height of its sound wave (its amplitude) whereas intensity is measured numerically by the square of the amplitude.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.