by Mark Daly
Most people have no idea how to communicate with those of us who don’t hear well. Many lose their patience when they need to repeat themselves. An alarming number will turn downright rude, treating people with hearing loss like they’re fools when conversations become difficult.
I recently experienced that worst sort of treatment at, of all places, a government services center. More about that in a moment.
I readily accept the fact that a large portion of the responsibility for whether a conversation goes smoothly depends on me – or anyone else with a hearing disability. But it’s not difficult to converse with someone who doesn’t hear well.
Whenever I meet someone new, the first time I have any trouble understanding what they’re saying, I quickly say, “I’m sorry, I’m hard of hearing.” Oftentimes, I’ll also point to one of my hearing aids.
Those without experience speaking with people who have hearing loss will frequently begin to shout or lean in and attempt to speak directly into one of my ears. Neither technique is helpful.
What those of us who don’t hear well need others to do is 1) slow down, 2) annunciate, and 3) look directly at us.
Consciously or otherwise, most of us with hearing loss eventually learn to lip read. If you’re speaking too fast or we can’t see your face, it doesn’t help to speak louder. Missing the first few words of what you’re saying often makes it impossible to understand the rest of your intended message because all context is lost.
To maximize my ability to communicate with others, in just the past five years, I’ve spent more than $10,000 on two sets of hearing aids with Bluetooth technology that sync to my cell phone. Even the best health insurance plans pay $0 for hearing aids. They’re considered a “luxury item” – not a necessity. This, even though 30 million Americans experience hearing loss.
I’ve also had to invest in an expensive headset to participate in Zoom meetings at work and with family members who live far away. I like to believe that I do everything I can to participate fully in the world. The monetary cost is far less than the price I’d pay if I were forced to live an isolated life.
Now, back to that awful experience at the government services center.
Like every Minnesotan who owns a car, once a year I receive notice from the state’s driver and vehicle Services (DVS) that it’s time to renew my license plate tabs. Upon receiving such a notice a few months ago, I promptly mailed a check to pay for my new tabs.
Three weeks later, I received a letter from the DVS stating they couldn’t send me my new tabs because I had “elected to keep my driver’s information private.”
That was untrue. Regardless, after calling the DVS and waiting more than an hour on the phone – twice – I did as instructed: I filled out an online form confirming that I did not want my driver’s information to be private. And then I waited – more than a month. The new tabs never arrived. The old tabs had long since expired and I worried that I’d be pulled over by a police officer and ticketed.
So, with copies of documents in hand, I carefully drove to a suburban DVS office and asked for help.
I explained the situation and handed the documents to a DVS agent. She scowled and said I should have arrived earlier. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. They closed at 4 p.m. She then began speaking quickly, alternately looking down at the papers and over at the clock – everywhere but at me.
I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t hear well,” pointing at my hearing aids. “I don’t understand the problem. I filled out the forms …”
“You should have arrived earlier,” she interrupted, clearly annoyed with me for forcing her to repeat herself. Then she apparently scolded me for something else that I couldn’t understand, treating me like a child and shoving the documents back at me.
A line began to form behind me. I started to ask the DVS agent if she was sure that nothing could be done, but she refused to look me in the eye. Embarrassed, I left.
The next morning, I returned to the service center at 8:30 a.m. Fortunately, I was greeted by a different agent. Early in our conversation, I explained that I was hard of hearing. “That’s okay,” she said, smiling while looking directly at me. “I know what it’s like. I don’t hear so well either.”
Five minutes later, I walked out of the service center with new tabs in hand. More importantly, I’d finally been heard.
Mark Daly is a longtime Minnesota journalist and communications professional. He serves on the Access Press Board of Directors.