Thursday, June 13, 2013

Being Sensitive to Hearing Loss

I’m an elder law attorney who suffers from some hearing loss. Perhaps it is a result of too many rock concerts in the 1960’s or too many hours on the lawnmower with no ear protection. (I wear ear protection now, but of course that won’t bring back the hearing I have already lost).
I wear hearing aids, and they help a lot. But, they don’t solve all of my hearing issues. I still spend a lot of frustrating, embarrassing moments dealing with my inability to understand what someone is saying to me.  
My own personal hearing loss has made me more sensitive, I think, to the hearing needs of my clients. This is especially important for an elder law attorney. Nearly two-thirds of people over age 70 have some degree of hearing loss (and only 20% wear hearing aids). And even with high quality hearing aids, I can tell you from personal experience, I still miss a lot.
Improving client communication is important for any professional. We want to make sure our clients are able to stay in the conversation.To communicate more effectively with our clients with hearing loss, we need to do more than just raise our voice. Raising the volume may actually do more harm than good. 
Hearing is complex. The fact that I can hear you doesn’t mean I can understand what you are saying. Volume alone does not equate to clarity and understanding. Your client may have difficulty distinguishing between different sounds. My own loss is most severe in the higher register. This makes it harder for me to hear consonants. If you shout at me, I still won’t know what you are saying.  
Of course, we all want our clients to understand what we are saying.  Here are ten tips that I have found useful. I’m posting them on this blog in the hopes one or more of them may be helpful for lawyers and other professionals who frequently counsel persons with hearing loss. 
1. Understand that most of your older clients have some problems with their hearing.  Be alert for hearing loss even when the client has not volunteered this information.  Ask if anyone has a hearing problem at the outset of the appointment.  Watch for hearing aids, bending of the head, lack of expression while listening, inappropriate responses and other signs of interference with communication
2. Don’t confuse hearing loss with dementia.
3. Avoid background noise.
4. Face the client so the client can see your face, especially your lips.
5. Use visual aids. (I have large whiteboards in each of my offices where I can print things out in bold letters, and put diagrams)
6. Do not shout (shouting actually distorts sound) but enunciate clearly and moderately.
7. Use short, simple sentences. 
8. Go slow, take time.
9. Make sure your face is well lit from the front so that your client can see your lips and facial expressions. Avoid back-lighting.
10. Ask the client what you can do to improve communication

There are some online videos that can help you understand what your clients with hearing loss may be experiencing. You can check them out by clicking the links below.

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