20+ ways to help someone with hearing loss
What follows is a summary from the rest of the website on how you and other people can help someone with hearing loss. It is not a list of what you 'must do', rather a list of what you should think about if you are serious about helping a deaf person.
Some of the sections give links to more explanation, but others cross boundaries of pages. So the rest of the website is worth checking for more information. The full menu is on the home page.
Some of the strategies will be more effective than others, depending on the nature of the deafness and the closeness of your relationship with the person concerned. It is taken as self-evident that the deaf person has had the advice of a hearing specialist, is aware of the range of commercially available aids for the deaf and has looked at how to help themselves.
If you live with a deaf person, it can be tiring and irritating. So what follows considers your needs too.
Help someone understand that they are deaf
Deafness often creeps up slowly, and it is all too easy for a deaf person to blame others when they don't hear. There is a page on helping someone to realise that they are deaf and another on coming to terms with deafness.
Find somewhere suitable to converse with a deaf person
Wait for a quiet environment before opening a conversation. This may not be as easy as it sounds, as anyone with normal hearing automatically 'filters out' everyday noises such as traffic or radio, so hardly notices that an environment isn't quiet. Someone with a certain type of hearing loss cannot do this and cannot therefore concentrate on a conversation. I cannot, for example, interact meaningfully in a car against a background of road and engine noise. The page on unbalanced hearing explains and the page on a suitable room should also help.
Position yourself where you can be heard and seen
As the position of the deaf person relative to a speaker can make all the difference to whether a voice sounds loud enough, do be considerate about this. I prefer social interaction to take place sitting round a table, rather than on easy chairs, because that way the separation between people is less, and their voices are louder.
Similarly it is important to place yourself where your face can easily be seen. Everyone lip reads to some extent, irrespective of whether or not they are deaf, and you can facilitate this by slightly exaggerating your lip movements. Don't overdo it or it will come across as patronising.
For these reasons, with my deafness, I like to sit in the front row in talks and other presentations. Then I usually do understand speakers, unless they seriously mumble or move around, but sadly I never hear the questions from the back of the room.
Get a deaf person's attention before speaking to them
As people with hearing loss tend to get used to ignoring the odd sounds around them, make sure that a deaf people is attending to you before trying to talk to them. Even calling their name from across a room may not help. Make sure they can see you, and smile or gesture, or go over to them and touch them on the shoulder before starting to speak.
How to start a conversation with a deaf person and how not to
Although starting a conversation with a question is a good strategy with normal hearers, avoid it with a deaf person. First let the deaf person get used to the rhythm and intonation of your voice, by making throw-away remarks that don't need a reply, or by talking with someone else while well within the range of the deaf person.
Make sure one person talks at a time where someone has hearing loss
As deaf people can't easily distinguish one conversation from another, never open a new conversation while another is going on. It never ceases to amaze me how often people do this. Even when I have made sure that a group will not be of more than four people before agreeing to be part of it, and even after saying at the outset, "I'm sorry, I can't cope with more than one conversation at a time", some people just can't keep quiet to listen while someone else talks. Even when I remind them, they just say, "Sorry, I forgot", but then do exactly the same thing a few minutes afterwards. I have no alternative but to opt out of attempting to interact with them in the future, which is a pity.
Give deaf people time to get used to regional accents
If you have a regional accent that the deaf person may be unfamiliar with, let them get used to it before you say anything of any significance. For example, make some noncommittal comments about the weather.
Speak clearly to a deaf person
To speak clearly, separate words. This automatically makes them seem clearer because it emphasises the beginning and ends of the words. Speaking clearly is not the same as shouting, nor is it the same as speaking slowly. The page on clarity provides further information.
Speak fairly loudly but do not shout at a deaf person
Do make sure that your speech, and if possible that of others, is adequately loud, but do not shout. The technique is to project your voice. Shouting always comes across as aggressive, which makes deaf people feel that they are a nuisance. For more information, start with the page on sound level.
Speak fairly slowly to a deaf person
As the brain takes time to process what is said, it takes longer for a deaf peron who may only hear a few keywords. So speak fairly slowly or, rather, don't speak quickly. You don't want to appear patronising.
What to say and not to say if a deaf person doesn't hear you
If a deaf person still doesn't hear, move nearer or speak more loudly / clearly and either repeat what you said or smile and say, something like, "I was only really talking to myself". Don't say, "It doesn't matter". This common response is interpreted as "You don't matter enough for me to bother to try to make you understand".
Find out what word or words a deaf person hasn't grasped
Try to find out what it is in a spoken sentence that a deaf person can't pick up. It is often a simple keyword that is causing the trouble and the person may indicate which one. Either repeat just that word slowly and more loudly or find another way of expressing what you want to say. Don't repeat an entire sentence verbatim, as the deaf person probably still won't understand and it can seem to be trying to make the deaf person look stupid.
Clearly signal any change in the topic of conversation
Make sure that the deaf person knows the topic of the conversation and don't change it without making sure that that they know, but without being patronising. Deaf people pick up keywords to help them follow a conversation, and if the topic changes without them realising, they can be lost.
Try not to make joking asides
Although normal hearers may not realise it, joking asides always seem to be made in stage whispers. Everyone except the deaf person hears them; everyone laughs at the joke and the deaf person has no idea why. Can you imagine how this must feel? So don't make joking asides with deaf people present and encourage others not to.
Let deaf people decline certain social invitations
Do not put pressure on a deaf person to attend a social gathering against their will on the mistaken assumption that they need to get out more or it will be all right when they are there. They know themselves better than you do, and not to be able to hear in a group is utterly demoralising. For an explanation, start with the page on social gatherings.
Encourage deaf people to accept certain social invitations
There are certain social gatherings that the deaf person knows will be difficult but really wants to attend, like for example the wedding of a family member. It is worth locating a quiet room where the deaf person can retire to at intervals if they wish. This probably involves some negotiation in advance, both with the deaf person and the manager of the venue.
If you really think that the deaf person will be able to cope in a social situation, explain in advance why you think it will be all right. A very strong reason is that if the gathering is out-of-doors there is effectively no background noise because there are no walls to reflect the sound back. Also the deaf person can move around to reposition themselves as necessary. Point out that you will do everything you can to support them - by reminding others of their needs where appropriate and giving them an entry into groups with whom they are likely to be able to interact. For more information, start with the page on social gatherings.
Find a deaf person a good seating position in a group
It may be that a deaf person has never thought about optimum seating positions in, for example, a restaurant situation. So it should help if you talk to them about it first and then act for them if necessary. I find background noise and other people's conversations almost unbearable when they are behind me. So I prefer to sit on the edge of a gathering and with my back to an open door or archway that won't be occupied. In some circumstances it is worth having a word with a manager in advance.
Alert others to the needs of a deaf person
Deaf people often think it inconsiderate to "keep on" about their hearing problems. So, if others seem to be taking no notice, consider reminding them. Of course, someone speaking for a deaf person might embarrass that person. So some negotiation in advance may be in order.
Be alert to someone being sensitive to sound
Someone with mild sound sensitivity that has developed over the years may not even realise that they have it. You can recognise them from their facial expressions when certain sounds occur, although you may just think that they are trying to be amusing. A sure sign of more severe sensitivity is how they use a television controller/remote. The fingers of someone with severe sound sensitivity seldom stray far from the volume control which they adjust constantly as the sounds change. I have worn out several over the years, way before the television itself needed replacement. For more information and how to cope, start with the page on sensitivity to sound.
Be alert to possible loud noises with someone with sensitive hearing
When you notice situations in which loud noise may be about to occur (like someone picking up a microphone or about to bang a drum) do alert the person with the sensitivity so that they have time to block up their ears. They may otherwise not notice until too late. For more information, start with the page on sensitivity to sound.
Explain the needs of the deaf to children
If children are about to meet a deaf person, provided that they are old enough to understand, make sure that they understand the deaf person's needs in advance of meeting them. Many older people are deaf and the people they probably care about most in all the world are their grandchildren. Yet children have difficult high-pitched voices; they use new words that older people don't understand even if they could hear them; and they dart around changing their positions. They simply don't understand deafness without guidance. For more information, start with the pages on social gatherings and about hearing problems.)
If a child is too young to understand, you just have to watch them carefully in the presence of a deaf person.
Discuss your needs and the deaf person's regarding the volume of television
Watching television with a member of the family who is sensitive to sound can be annoying to anyone with normal hearing, as the sound level keeps changing as the volume control keeps being readjusted. You need to decide if you are prepared to go along with this or need to get a separate television for another room. It is pointless and unkind to expect the person concerned to keep listening without tampering with the volume control. For more information, start with the page on sensitivity to sound. If of course the problem is deafness without sensitivity, various aids are available commercially - and often the hearing aid controls can maintain more of an even volume for the deaf person.
Discuss your needs and the deaf person's regarding television subtitles
With considerable hearing loss and a hearing aid, a deaf person may prefer to watch television with subtitles. This can be annoying to other members of the family. So again you need to decide if you are prepared to go along with this or need to get a separate television for another room.
Can you share a social life with a deaf person?
If the person who is seriously deaf or has sound sensitivity is close family, their problem may, unfortunately, mean that they cannot share in all your social activities. This needs careful and loving discussion.
How supportive can you be to a deaf person?
The answer to this question depends on how close you are to the deaf person and your own energies. If you merely visit a deaf person occasionally, the question doesn't really arise. Following the above suggestions should be enough. If you live with a deaf person, I can only say how important my husband's support has been to me in spotting ways to be helpful.
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.