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In May of each year the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) celebrates Better Hearing and Speech Month. This year’s theme is “Communication at Work,” so let’s shine a light on some of the issues that can come up with our hearing loss in the workplace, and think about what we can do to mediate them. With many people in “non-essential” industries currently laid off or working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, some communication issues have become simpler, though there are still steps we can take to make sure we’re getting what we can out of our limited face-to-face interactions with coworkers.
If we’re meeting online, there are a few steps we can take to make sure we’re getting the most out of our time together. While online platforms like Zoom and Google Meet are great at removing steady background noise like buzzing refrigerators or fans, they won’t remove speech, so make sure your coworkers are aware of the sounds that may be ending up in their live stream. Other people talking in the house or the television on in the background during the meeting can seriously confuse what you’re able to hear.
Most of us with hearing loss rely on some degree of lipreading to get along in conversation. It can be helpful to make sure your coworkers are signing on in well-lit rooms, with their devices on stable surfaces, and they’re sitting close enough that you can see their faces clearly. These conditions being met will actually reduce distractions and fatigue for everyone on the call, not just those with hearing loss.
Zoom and Google Meet both offer options for closed captioning, automatic transcription and audio recording of the call, so be sure to take advantage of these as well, if you find them helpful.
At the Workplace
Whether you’re currently going in to work or will be doing it again soon, there are some good practices to keep in mind while you’re there. It’s important that your coworkers know about your hearing loss and what works for you in terms of effective communication, and though you might have to make some requests, usually people will start to remember the best ways to interact with you and start to do them automatically.
The main thing to remember is to be proactive about your needs. If you can’t hear someone, ask them to speak louder. If you’re having trouble making out what they’re saying, ask them to say it again in different words. If you have a particular coworker whose voice is especially difficult for you to hear, either because of their natural volume or their pitch, try to get important communications in writing. Don’t let things slip because of communication issues!
It’s also perfectly acceptable to request some reasonable accommodations from your boss. Maybe you need to have a desk or workstation farther away from noisy machines or group meeting areas, so you can better here the individuals you’re meeting with one-on-one. If possible, maybe you can more often work in smaller groups rather than larger ones. Or maybe you need to sit closer to the front in larger groups, or in a certain spot around a regular meeting table. If something occurs to you that would be a better way for you to hear or see more of what’s being communicated, ask for it.
Educate Coworkers about Hearing Loss
You might also need to educate the people at your workplace about some of the issues that face those of us with hearing loss. For example, a lot of people might not understand intuitively that when we ask them to repeat themselves, it’s better to rephrase it than to say the same thing again louder. Many people also don’t realize how fatiguing hearing loss can be; perhaps you need to request a little downtime after a meeting, explaining this phenomenon.
If you’re having trouble hearing and haven’t been fitted with hearing aids, or if you have but it’s been a while since your last hearing test, schedule one now. Hearing loss, unfortunately, tends to get worse on its own, and the effects of letting it run its course can be profound: from atrophy in the brain to physical injuries, even lower salaries are reported amongst those who leave hearing loss untreated. A modern set of hearing aids helps keep us attuned to our environments and better suited to daily life, so get a hearing test now and start feeling more capable sooner rather than later.