What I Wish People With Normal Hearing Understood About Hearing Loss

By Steve Klinger

As part of my long journey with hearing loss—from recognizing that I have a problem to being an everyday hearing aid user—I recently realized I've been harboring some frustrations about the all-too-common misunderstandings that normal-hearing people have about those of us with hearing loss. From what I’ve read on hearing loss forums, and from conversations I've had with some of my contemporaries, I'm convinced that others share my concerns. So I feel it’s time to express them.

It's mostly younger people, but also certain public speakers (teachers, actors, musical performers), and others, who might communicate a bit differently if they were aware of the day-to-day struggles of people with hearing loss. And if they were more aware, they might even take some steps to protect their own precious hearing.

Go ahead, pick and choose what resonates the most for you and feel free to share it with those you think ought to lend an ear.

  • Hearing loss is not like most garden-variety vision loss. A modestly priced pair of distance- or reading glasses may work wonders for correcting typical visual acuity problems, but hearing aids and/or cochlear implants will not restore normal hearing. So don't act shocked when you see my hearing aids and I'm still going, "Pardon me?"
  • It's not simply a matter of amplification. Every person's hearing loss is unique, and understanding speech in noise is especially challenging. Damage to the neural pathways and various conductivity problems can be very complex, and not all are yet fully understood or easily corrected.
  • Face me to be heard. If you are turned away from me (and walking around, like my yoga instructor), I'm going to struggle to understand you, so please face me if you can. This is doubly true if you are asking to move into the guest house with your family.
  • Clarity is essential. Young, normal ears may be able to fill in the blanks for the half-eaten words in rapid, often mumbled speech. My ears will probably fail the test. That likelihood is almost certainly increased if you're asking me to cosign that loan.
  • Contrary to appearances, I'm not stupid; I just have trouble understanding speech in noise. If I ask you to repeat something, there's really no need to shout one syllable at a time in slow motion. Just enunciate a little better and I'll probably get it the second time. (Or the third. I'm also kind of old.)
  • If we're talking by phone, please don't just hand the device to the young grandkids. It will be too breathy, muffled, garbled, loud or soft for me to get very much of it, and I don't want to hurt their feelings by asking again if they're going to school/daycare yet or still attending remotely.
  • Please don't put me on speaker phone. I'll have to struggle to extract your words from the din of the blender or the football game in the background. And I won't understand that voice chiming in from across the room.
  • Listening is hard work for me. If you're driving, please turn down the car radio during our phone call, or better yet, use your CarPlay. I'm having enough trouble picking your speech out from the road noise and the barking dog on the back seat. Wait, your CarPlay is giving me this maddening echo...
  • Are you addressing a live audience at a concert or speaking at a Zoom meeting? Please chill a little with the sarcastic asides. I'm already struggling with the scripted stuff.
  • If at some point I want to end our conversation it doesn't mean I don't like you anymore. Prolonged listening to speech is a cognitive as well as an auditory challenge for me. The effort to concentrate can be exhausting. (And I'm kind of old. Did I say that already?)
  • Background noise matters. If we're in a loud restaurant, there's a good reason why I want to sit opposite you, with my back to the wall, but an even better reason why we shouldn't be there in the first place. I need a quiet restaurant if we're going to talk. (Uh, we may have a problem here. I just read even upscale restaurants are getting louder.)
  • Are you a cashier or customer service rep? If I'm next in line I won't have heard your conversation with the previous customer, so you can just as well save the conspiratorial grin.
  • Are you a healthcare provider or office assistant (and wearing a mask)? When it's my turn, please call out my full name to the crowded waiting room, and if you could project a little I won't jump up for "Eve" or "Keith."
  • Speaking of masks, when you're wearing one, your consonants will likely be muffled, which of course makes my task harder. This reinforces virtually all of my points above. You may not fully appreciate my frustrations, but I promise I'm not exaggerating. (Well, maybe occasionally. But only because I'm forgetful.)

To sum up, it would be great if you could take a hint from my struggles and cut me a little slack in the convo. More important, turn down those AirPod Pros so you can enjoy your own invincible ears for a lot longer before you realize they weren't.