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How to Talk to People with Hearing Loss

Hearing loss creates communication barriers that lead to frustration, isolation, and social withdrawal. Although the side effects of hearing loss emotionally impact the individual with the hearing loss those same side effects can also affect friends and loved ones just the same. For this reason it is important to properly understand hearing loss and to know how to communicate effectively with someone with hearing loss.

There are two types of hearing loss; conductive and sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss is caused by attenuation of sound at the level of the outer and middle ear (i.e. ear wax, perforated eardrum, fluid behind eardrum) and is usually treated medically or surgically. Sensorineural hearing loss is more common and is caused by a loss of sensitivity at the inner ear (cochlea and auditory pathway to the brain) and is permanent. Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by the aging process, noise exposure, certain medications, and even genetics. This type of hearing loss is irreversible and the resulting loss of hearing sensitivity is typically treated with hearing aids. Because of the permanent nature of hearing loss and inability to “cure” sensorineural hearing loss it is beneficial to remember a few additional tips that will help maximize understanding and ultimately improve communication. These communication techniques include facing each other while talking, reducing background noise while possible, and maintaining moderate intensity and rate of speech.

One part of the diagnostic hearing evaluation is known as word understanding testing or speech discrimination testing. This test is performed by having the patient repeat phonetically balanced words, presented in one ear at a time, at a loud but not uncomfortably loud level. The result is a score from 0%-100% that tells the audiologist how each ear understands amplified speech. If this score is relatively high (80% or better) the patient will be able to hear better with hearing aids in most listening situations. If the word understanding score is low (60% or lower), the person is not expected to hear well in any situation especially one with more background noise. The audiologist is responsible for conveying the word understanding score to each person (and ideally the entire family) in an effort to properly set expectations for benefit with hearing aids!

In order to make conversation easier ask yourself a few questions the next time you speak to someone with hearing loss: Am I facing the individual? Can I somehow reduce the background noise? Am I speaking with a moderate rate and intensity of voice? These things are so important for EVERYONE to know so that together we can all communicate more effectively with our friends and loved ones!

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