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Communicating with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Seniors

We talk about how to communicate with people who have severe hearing loss. The advice is especially useful for young people who tend to mumble their words.

We talk about how to communicate with people who have severe hearing loss. The advice is especially useful for young people who tend to mumble their words.

Dear Benefits Advisor,

I am a director of recreation at a senior center that offers classes, crafts, exercise, and social events for people in our community.  One of our local high schools has volunteered to supply student volunteers to work as assistants to our regular teachers in working with our senior population.  The biggest problems we seem to have is in helping our teens communicate so that the seniors, most of whom have hearing loss, can understand and hear them. Is there something I can add to our orientation training about communicating with deaf and hard of hearing seniors?


Dear Joyce,

I’m so glad you took the time to ask questions about a really important issue that affects millions of people: Communicating with people with severe hearing loss.  It’s common for adults to accuse teens of mumbling, which immediately puts a strain on any communication between these two groups. While it probably wouldn’t hurt all of us to improve our diction, the reality is that most people have no idea how to communicate effectively with people different from themselves, including those who have trouble hearing or understanding them. I love the idea of including communication tips as part of your orientation. What would really help integrate these tips into whatever else you are teaching them would be to have the students role play some situations where they can practice the techniques you describe to them. Here are five simple, effective suggestions for communicating with people with hearing difficulties:

  1. Begin all communication with a greeting that is visual, physical and spoken. Example: Gently tap the person on the arm, face the person with a smile, and then say: Hello, Matthew. I’m Emmie and I’m here to help you with woodworking today.
  2. Make sure your mouth is clearly visible. Most people who are hard of hearing depend on reading facial expressions and especially lips. Try not to turn away when speaking, cover your mouth with your hands or hold an item in your mouth while talking.
  3. Don’t be embarrassed to use pantomime or hand gestures. Adding body or hand movements can provide important cues to what you are communicating. Example: Hang on to the back of a chair with both hands and move one leg up at a time while saying: “Hang on to the back of the chair with both hands and practice swinging each leg up one at a time.”
  4. Rephrase your statement or question if the person doesn’t understand it the first time. Example: First question: Do you want to participate in our singing class today? Second question: Do you like to sing? Come and joins us in the music room.
  5. Be patient with your voice. It is easy to resort to yelling, especially if you have made repeated unsuccessful attempts to be understood. Even if your words are not understood, your tone of voice, facial expressions and your feelings are apparent when you are shouting or impatient.

Congratulations, Joyce, on having volunteers who want to work with your clientele.  I hope these tips can improve the communication and forge some meaningful relationships for both the young people and the seniors.


Benefits Advisor

Difficulties with Hearing Loss

Learn how people with severe hearing loss can seek work modifications, either on their own or by securing a Social Security residual functional capability (RFC) rating to restrict work conditions.

Dear Benefits Advisor,

My 59 year-old husband has been experiencing severe hearing loss for the past couple of years to the point where it is impossible to carry on a normal conversation with him. But that’s not the worst. He cannot understand people on the telephone, has to watch television with the maximum volume and still cannot hear, and even has problems identifying traffic sounds while driving, such as horns, motorcycles, or even sirens. He wears hearing aids but they don’t seem to work very well. In addition to the frustration at home, he works in an office where he constantly needs to be communicating on phone and in person as well as driving to clients’ homes and offices. His hearing difficulties have resulted in some costly mistakes recently at work that add to our concerns. I worry constantly about what I can do to help him cope or even to figure out what he can do so that his life is not so difficult and upsetting.

Susan in Oviedo, Florida

Dear Susan,

I am sorry that you and your husband are experiencing problems with his hearing loss.  You are certainly not alone since there are more than 48 million Americans who experience moderate to severe hearing loss. It is a problem that advances with age and affects not only the person with hearing loss but also everyone who interacts with a person with this disability.

Yes, hearing loss is a disability. Especially if the person needs to use “mitigating measures” which include hearing aids, special telephones, headsets, amplifiers, or even cochlear implants and still experiences limits to major life activities.  If your husband is comfortable discussing his situation with his employer, perhaps some modifications to his assigned tasks can alleviate some of the problem at work.

You also can pursue assistance for work modification through Social Security. There are strict requirements for being identified as having profound deafness. To apply for assistance with Social Security, your husband’s doctor will need to provide details about his hearing loss, including test results of pure tone threshold in decibels across various frequencies and identification of speech sounds based on an audio reading test.  If the doctor’s report states he has work and functional restrictions, your husband can use the information to apply to Social Security for a residual functional capability (RFC) that can either include restrictions on the work that he can do or qualify him for disability benefits.

I know that sounds like a lot of effort but you can start now by getting the details about your husband’s hearing loss and then make decisions together about how best to approach modifications in his work or possibly apply for disability benefits. You can always talk to an experienced attorney about assistance with benefits for hearing loss.  I applaud your initiative in wanting to figure out how best to help improve you and your husband’s situation today.


Benefits Advisor

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