Dr. Matthew Pyeatt, Curriculum Specialist, McGraw Hill
There are many ways to ask someone to repeat themselves. In the events of my life, I am convinced I have used almost every single one. According to The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), nearly 10,000,000 people in The United States are hard of hearing. This same survey indicates that nearly 1,000,000 people in our nation are functionally deaf (Mitchell, 2005). Though I am not one of the one million people who are functionally deaf, I am one of the ten million Americans who struggles with being hard of hearing. This is a phenomenon that is widespread in my family. One sibling is functionally deaf and teaches American Sign Language in one of the largest high schools in the Houston, Texas area and dozens of other family members join me in wearing hearing aids as an American that is hard of hearing.
In my work as a curriculum specialist at McGraw Hill, I have seen how students and teachers are impacted by this struggle, whether students have hearing loss, someone in their family does, or even educators are part of the deaf/hard of hearing population. The following perspective and insight on this issue is written for those who are new to this space to understand hearing loss better, what they can do to assist colleagues, relatives, classmates and students who also have hearing loss, and to help those that hear well to understand the daily struggles for those of us who constantly must ask, “I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?”
Allow me to share a personal memory from elementary school with which many of you can likely relate. Every year the school nurse would embark upon the adventure of conducting sight and hearing screenings. While some of you may remember this, few have this memory stuck in their mind like I do. Every year, without fail, I would watch this process unfold before my eyes with fear, nervousness, and hesitation. I knew I was not only going to fail the test, but I would do so dramatically. For a young man who tried to do everything well, this was devastating. It was embarrassing. I remember the headphones and the nurse explaining the instructions: “When you hear the tone, raise your hand.” The test would begin. I sat there. Waiting. Waiting. Was that a sound or was that just my imagination?
My parents were always aware I had trouble hearing. This lucky trait is one that I inherited genetically. There are many in my family who range from completely deaf to hard of hearing like myself. The simple fact of the matter is that hearing aids were incredibly expensive, and I had to find ways to cope. However, that reality changed when I went to college. I remember receiving my first pair of hearing aids when I was 18 years old at The University of Oklahoma. I was ashamed to some degree and only wore them in class when I absolutely needed them. In fact, I remember slipping into class and discretely putting my hearing aids on so my friends and fraternity brothers wouldn’t see me. It took many years before I was comfortable wearing hearing aids.
Now, working for McGraw Hill, I’m encouraged by the attention to representation of children who wear hearing aids. I hope that the students who encounter characters in their learning programs and books find some confidence and comfort in seeing their experiences reflected back to them. The picture below, in which the character in the middle is wearing a hearing aid, is from the McGraw Hill elementary reading program Wonders. These Wonders Student Agents are used throughout the program to empower student agency and engage with users.
But just as it took me a long time to feel comfortable wearing my hearing aids, in a lot of ways, it took that much time to become confident and comfortable with who I was, what my limitations were, and how to overcome those limitations. In the years since, I have had the amazing opportunity to learn American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with my brother. Communicating with someone, including our valuable customers who are hard of hearing, can be challenging. I’ve seen and experienced it firsthand. Though challenging, there are a few things you can do to make the experience better for both yourself and the individual with whom you are trying to communicate. The following strategies are some of a few I have selected to highlight from the University of California — San Francisco’s Audiology Clinic:
“Face the hearing-impaired person directly, on the same level and in good light whenever possible. Position yourself so that the light is shining on the speaker’s face, not in the eyes of the listener.”
The most important piece to this tip, from my perspective, is to allow the light to shine on the speaker’s face. Shadows create havoc for a hearing-impaired person’s ability to attempt to read lips, which is very important in receiving information.
“Speak clearly, slowly, distinctly, but naturally, without shouting or exaggerating mouth movements. Shouting distorts the sound of speech and may make speech reading more difficult.”
If you have read this far, know that this may be the most important tip that is provided. It seems unnecessary to mention this, but louder is not better. As people get louder, it becomes harder to understand the message. Pronunciation is the key to clear communication. Those who read lips are looking for tongue and lip placement to differentiate sounds like, “p” and “b,” as opposed to sounds like, “t” and “c,” and “m.”
“Say the person’s name before beginning a conversation.”
“Avoid talking too rapidly. Slow down a little, pause between sentences or phrases, and wait to make sure you have been understood before going on.”
It is always best practice to make sure the person knows you are about to begin a train of thought or an idea so they may begin to follow. There is also a happy medium in slowing down your speech and pausing between sentences. If you speak too fast, the listener will struggle, however, if you go to slow, the conversation does not feel fluid.
“Keep your hands away from your face while talking. If you are eating, chewing, or smoking while talking, your speech will be more difficult to understand” (UCSF, 2021).
While it may be uncomfortable at first, always remember a hearing-impaired individual is focusing on your lip placement and mouth as opposed to your eyes like many hearing people would. Hand gestures, movement of the head, or covering the mouth makes it very difficult for someone who is hearing-impaired to follow the conversation.
Looking forward and outside of individual interactions, I’m also encouraged by advances in technology that may benefit the hearing-impaired, and an overall increase of awareness among education and tech companies on the importance of accessibility. Closed captioning on video content was initially developed to supports users with hearing impairments, and it’s increasingly available across common digital platforms, including in the classroom. McGraw Hill programs support clear communications is by providing captions and transcripts for audio and visual materials, and we have a team dedicated to accessibility across our business units. I had the opportunity to participate in this video from McGraw Hill for Global Accessibility awareness day:
Life with a disability is difficult but hearing impairment does not limit an individual to living a full, rich life in both the workplace and at home. Most individuals, deaf or hard-of-hearing, adjust to make certain they can understand communication in the best way they are able. Most also love to talk about their experiences and help others who show genuine interest in their lives and the way they adapt. If we meet up down the road, don’t hesitate to ask about my hearing aids or open dialogue. I’m listening!
Dr. Matthew Pyeatt is a Curriculum Specialist on the Greater South/Texas Team and has worked for McGraw Hill for 3 years. He served as a teacher and administrator in Texas public schools for over 15 years. He is also a proud alumni of The University of Oklahoma. Boomer!
Mitchell RE. How many deaf people are there in the United States? Estimates from the Survey of Income and Program Participation. J Deaf Stud Deaf Educ. 2006 Winter;11(1):112–9. doi: 10.1093/deafed/enj004. Epub 2005 Sep 21. PMID: 16177267.
The University of California — San Francisco. Communicating With People With Hearing Loss. UCSF Audiology Clinic. 2021. doi: https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/communicating-with-people-with-hearing-loss.