Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Michelle Ganz, the Archives Director at McDonough Innovation,
Hard of Hearing (HoH) covers everything from not being able to hear certain vocal ranges or pitches to only being able to hear with the help of hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Every HoH person’s condition, and therefore experience, is different. Everyone has different coping techniques and strategies to navigate the world we live in and the environments we move through. I’d like to share my experience and how that has informed how I have navigated my professional life as a lone arranger.
I was born deaf in my left ear and have slightly diminished hearing in my right ear, especially in the higher tonal ranges. Until a few years ago I managed without a hearing aid but as I have gotten older the efforts to hear became exhausting and I decided it was time to get help. Before the hearing aid I spent a lot of time completely panicked that I was missing critical information at school, at work, and anywhere that wasn’t home. After the hearing aid everything is louder, but that doesn’t translate to easier to hear. If a room has a lot of white noise, electronics, or cross-talk all I hear is a cloud of indistinguishable sound. When I was first transitioning to the hearing aid I would often have to flee from group situations to sit in a dark room until I could calm down from the overstimulation coupled with even less understanding. Those moments have passed, but I still have problems every day with basic vocal interactions; even in seemingly quiet spaces. Having an invisible disability can make an already challenging situation feel insurmountable.
The type of active listening and hyper-awareness of my surroundings that I have to engage in every day is exhausting, stressful, and isolating. Some days are better than others, but what really adds to the load is the constant reminders to others: of my disability, of the best ways to communicate with me, or the concessions that need to be made for me. At best this sets me apart from the rest of the team, and at worst I’m seen as a disruption to the normal flow of work. People require regular assertions that I am not making things up to take advantage of perceived ‘perks.’ I feel like I constantly have to apologize for being a ‘burden’ for requesting special accommodations or basic courtesies. This means that I don’t always tell people that I can’t understand them. It means I spend a lot of time wondering if I misunderstood something or completely missed something I should have heard. It means when I ask people to repeat things sometimes I have to ask so many times they just give up and walk away. It means I’ve sat in meetings and wondered what the heck was going on because everyone mumbled and the pace was too fast for me to ask for everything to be repeated.
Wearing a hearing aid has helped tremendously, but it doesn’t fix all my problems. It is paired with my cell phone (which is awesome) so phone calls stream directly to my ear, but conventional phones are nearly impossible for me to use. Listening to webinars on my computer, participating in conference calls, and other routine uses of technology can be difficult or outright impossible. Regular interactions with my colleagues in our kitchen are always a struggle, especially when the coffee machine is doing its very loud fresh-grind thing. People get uncomfortable with being asked to repeat an offhand anecdote or comment so it’s just easier for me to smile and nod rather than try to figure out what they said. Meetings can be totally derailed by requests to repeat something, or even worse, having to have someone else repeat what was said. My boss is quiet and often mumbles, and does not like to repeat himself. I have spent hours trying to figure out what I missed from one of our meetings. When I used to do teaching sessions questions from students were the most difficult part of the class. At my last archive I had to conduct a lot of reference interviews over the phone with researchers who were often elderly or had difficult-to-distinguish local accents. This was frustrating for the patrons, who just wanted quick answers, and frustrating for me since it often derailed outreach efforts.
I understand that the vast majority of people will go their whole lives without knowingly interacting with someone who is HoH. But hearing loss affects millions of people (many of whom don’t even realize they have issues) and hearing issues are going to become a more prevalent issue in archival spaces and in everyday life. Our world is filled with white noise; even reading rooms have a lot of ‘noise’ not noticeable to most people. If I deeply engrossed in my work and there’s a fan on I will not hear you unless you get my attention first.
I also understand that people can’t grow and change if they a) don’t realize they are doing something wrong and b) if they don’t know where to start. To that end here are some of the things that I would like everyone to know.
The recommendations I’m laying out here are ones that I believe you should adopt with everyone. I believe that if you use the same sort of approach with everyone you will move the onus of service back onto yourself. Take a look at the resources I’ve listed below like the diversity work group page as well as the access statement on disabilities currently being updated. But mostly, use common sense. None of the things I lay out here are complicated, costly, or even time consuming. They just take practice to become part of how you approach every interaction.
Make eye contact
It’s easier for me to know you are talking to me and not someone else in the room if you make eye contact before you start to speak. It’s also an important way for you to tell that I’m actually listening.
Don’t cover your mouth / Make it easy for your mouth to be seen
Lip reading doesn’t work like in the movies. You can only catch about 40% of what someone is saying and it’s really hard to figure out since your mouth makes the same motions for a lot of different words. BUT we do use lip reading to confirm that what we are hearing is matching what your mouth is doing.
Speak clearly / use a microphone
If you speak clearly and enunciate your words it will be much easier for me to understand you. If there is a microphone in the room please use it. See the great blog post by Jessie Ramey (link below) on this very topic. She addresses the issue of people who don’t use microphones.
Have an alternative method of communication via digital or physical notepad
There is nothing more frustrating than a communication barrier. Have an alternative method like the notepad on your phone or a piece of paper. For many hard of hearing people the higher registers and tones of a woman’s voice can be difficult to understand; don’t be insulted if we ask to speak with someone with a lower voice (and yes, this often means a male voice). And don’t assume that I know sign language. Most hard of hearing people do not.
Be understanding of involuntary noise or levels of loudness.
Hard of hearing people are loud. We usually don’t realize that we are making a ruckus or causing a disruption. I have no idea how loud I am, especially in a quiet room or if I’ve been intently working on something. I use outside stimuli to determine my own levels of noise; often I have grossly misjudged but don’t know until people around me react like a bomb went off. Be polite and we’ll do our best to keep it down.
Don’t assume, ask
I would rather you ask me a hundred times what I’d like you to do than you assume and get it wrong. Assumptions (or even worse, asking the person with me) are infantilizing and marginalizing.
I’ve spent my whole life dealing with being HoH, I spent my childhood hiding it, my college years learning how to advocate for myself, and my adult life working so that today’s and tomorrow’s kids don’t have to hide. But at the end of the day none of my efforts mean anything if able-bodied people don’t acknowledge invisible disabilities and take steps to ensure that they are treating everyone with respect.
The group has completed its task but the microsite has a ton of great resources and links to additional information.
The Approved guidelines for access. This is great resource to help you develop policies and to provide support with administration.
A fantastic blog post about the importance of things like microphones to HoH people.
There are a number of deaf and hard of hearing people on YouTube who have a ton of really great videos about their experiences. They explain a lot of things that HoH people deal with and review things like assistive technologies. I’m a big fan of Jessica Kellgren-Fozard and Rikki Poynter.