by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A man explained,
I have had a hearing loss since I was a child. My hearing loss continues to increase as I get older. I have been spending more and more on hearing aids that don’t seem to help. I have trouble in crowds and have increasingly avoided gatherings with more than a few people. It is very frustrating and the people I love don’t understand.
I wear [digital hearing aids] and I truthfully don’t believe I hear any better than when I was wearing an analog aid. I have background filters but they really limit my conversation ability. I work in an office environment and can’t hear low or soft spoken conversations. I’m sure I’m not unique in this problem, but it’s becoming overwhelming and I simply don’t know what to do. Please help.
A lady explained,
I am pretty new to being a late-deafened adult. Once there are more than 3 people talking, I feel helpless and am pretty much lost. At restaurants, sports arenas, churches, classrooms, lectures (with questions) I just end up so frustrated not being able to hear that I zone out. I have hearing aids and a microphone that is modestly useful in some situations, but when there are more than two people talking all this technology is pretty much useless in social situations. As a result, I feel myself receding from social and family settings.
As you both well know, hearing in groups and social situations is a nightmare for many hard of hearing people. The problem is the dynamics of groups. The conversation ball rockets from mouth to mouth faster than your eyes can follow. There are “one liners” from all over the group. Two or more people are talking at the same time. There are often various background sounds present. Some people don’t speak very loudly, or speak too fast, or have heavy accents, or all three. You are too far away from most of the people in the group for your hearing aids to pick up their voices clearly. And on and on it goes.
Now, if we could control all those people so they’d do the things we need them to do in order for us to hear them, life would be ever so much better.
As one lady explained,
I wish I could make everyone present:
— talk loudly
— always face me so I could hear and speechread them
— always tell me when changing the topic
— stop interrupting each other
— stop laughing so much and so loudly
— stop eating noisy foods
— stop all background music
— avoid noisy and dimly-lighted restaurants
— avoid large rooms with poor acoustics
— always let me choose the restaurant and room
— always let me arrange the room and seat people the way I want…
Doing these things would make it much easier for us to hear to be sure, but it is unrealistic to expect hearing people to do these things. The result, is that we are left out of the conversation—once again.
Hearing people are largely unaware that people with significant hearing losses cannot easily join other people’s conversations. One of the problems is we need visual clues in order to know who is going to be talking next so we can turn towards them in order to speechread them right away.
Unfortunately, conversation habits of a lifetime die hard. Thus, even when we tell hearing people what we need them to do (refer to the above wish-list again), they soon revert to their habitual conversational styles. The result is that even though everyone in the group may know we have severe hearing losses, few of them consistently try to accommodate our hearing needs.
What is the solution? In such situations hearing aids are not enough by themselves. This is where you need to use various assistive listening devices and hearing loss coping strategies.
For example, if the noise is too great to hear clearly, then you need to get a microphone close (closer) to the lips of the person you want to hear. This is where assistive devices excel. Using a super-directional microphone held a foot or so from the speaker’s mouth will capture his/her voice and cut out more than 90% of the background racket. This will let you clearly hear and understand that person.
For example, you could use a personal amplifier such as the PockeTalker with a super-directional handheld microphone and plug a neckloop into the earphone jack then listen via the t-coils in your hearing aids (or dump your hearing aids and simply use earbuds instead). With this arrangement, the speaker’s voice will be beautifully clear and the rest of the racket will almost disappear.
I often do this when I attend conventions, which by their very nature are noisy. I hear wonderfully well when talking face-to-face with one or two people in such situations.
If you have to be at some distance from the speaker where just one person is speaking (a lecture, for example), then one solution is to use an FM system such as the Comfort Contego. The speaker wears the remote microphone/transmitter and you can be up to 100 feet or more away and still hear beautiful clear sound.
In structured group situations such as small meetings, it can be very helpful to have a magic “talking stick”. Anyone who wants to speak must wait until the “talking stick” is passed to them.
As Marjie explains,
I often do this: I’ll announce to the group that this is the magic ‘talking stick’ (and I hold up a wireless microphone). Only one person can talk at a time and if you want to speak you must be holding the magic ‘talking stick’ in your hand. If you do not have the magic ‘talking stick’, your voice will not be heard.
It’s interesting that people will raise their hand and stare pointedly at someone hogging the magic ‘talking stick’ when they want a turn to talk. Even if you are not using a microphone, using any item (the garden troll, the baseball trophy, a red golf ball, etc.) as the magic ‘talking stick’ will help because you will know who is talking (they are holding it) and thus you can read lips/facial expressions.
Furthermore, the rest of the group will be quiet so you can concentrate on one person speaking at a time.
This can work well in structured meetings, but in informal get-togethers, often there are a number of people talking at once (e.g. conventions, parties, around the water cooler, backyard barbeques and so forth). The secret in these situations is to get close to the person you want to hear—you can’t just sit back and expect to hear everyone via your hearing aids. You need to get actively involved and move around so you are close to the person speaking. Since your hearing aids are picking up too much background racket and not enough of the speech sounds you want to hear, the solution is to switch to an assistive device with a good directional microphone that you hold close to the speaker’s lips. When done correctly, you won’t believe the beautiful clear speech that reaches your ears. I do this all the time. It works for me. It can work for you too.