May is The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s (ASHA’s) Better Hearing and Speech Month, with a focus on “Communication at Work,” and with many of us working from home or social distancing due to COVID-19, there’s no better time to review some of the techniques and technologies that can make your work experience more productive and enjoyable.
Disclose Your Hearing Loss
You don’t need to overemphasize your hearing loss, but people can’t accommodate what they don’t know about. Let your coworkers know that hearing is an issue for you when it comes up, and let them know how they can better communicate with you. After a few times, they’ll pick up on what works for you and start doing it automatically. You might say, “I’m a little hard of hearing, could you make sure to face me when you’re talking?” Or if you miss something they’ve said, ask them, “Could you say that again in different words?”
You shouldn’t have to choose between understanding your coworker and potentially becoming a vector for illness. Unfortunately, most facemasks are completely opaque. On top of that, they filter the high frequencies out of speech, the very frequencies that are the first to be lost with sensorineural hearing loss. If you need to have a conversation with someone in person, maintain social distancing and ask them to send a follow-up email about whatever you discussed. You might also look into face masks with transparent windows for your coworkers.
Make the Most of Office Meeting Software
If you are working from home, Zoom and Google Meet are powerful communication tools during this time, but if you rely on lipreading you might have some issues with slower internet connections or older computer hardware introducing time-lags or freezes on your calls.
There may not be much to be done about internet or computer problems, but just for due diligence you might try getting closer to your home wifi router, using your smartphone instead of your computer, or connecting with the wifi hotspot on your phone instead of your home internet system. If a coworker is having connection issues, you might suggest these things to them as well.
Make sure everyone’s computer, phone or tablet is on a stable surface in a well-lit, quiet environment.. By the time our images get to the other end of the system, the bobbing around of a computer in a lap or a phone held up to the face can be very distracting, and will definitely make it harder to read lips. While many devices employ software that automatically brightens images when light is a bit low, this will usually make the image grainier, so make sure everyone has adequate lighting, whether from the sun or electric lights.
Also be sure to minimize background sounds on your end and ask your coworkers to do the same. While we all need to be understanding of the issues that might arise when we put together these ad hoc office networks, for those of us with hearing loss, a television in the background or a family member or roommate on a different call can be so confusing as to defeat the purpose of the meeting.
Get It in Writing
If meeting notes are written down, ask that you have access to them right away. Zoom supports any third-party closed captioning provider and includes an automatic transcriber. Google Meet also offers closed captioning. While the meeting notes and/or a transcript after the fact are great, they don’t help you participate better during the actual meeting, so realtime transcription or closed captioning might be worth considering if you’re having issues.
Statistically, untreated hearing loss can cost up to $30,000 per year in lost wages. Hearing aids can reduce the risk of lost earnings potential by over 90% for those with mild hearing loss, and by as much as 77% for those with moderate to severe hearing loss. So make sure you’re hearing what you need to hear, whether you’re working at home or at the office, jobsite or facility. If you currently don’t wear hearing aids but find yourself frequently asking people to repeat themselves, get a hearing test and find out if you could benefit from hearing aids. On top of improving earnings at work, they improve quality of life in many areas we might not even think about at first, and the sooner you start wearing them the better your path forward will be.