Hearing Loss And Communication: It’s Not Just Sign Language
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Hearing Loss And Communication: It’s Not Just Sign Language

Oral deafness may be the most misunderstood of disabilities even though, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America, one in ten people in our country fit this description: that is, they have some degree of hearing loss and do not speak sign language. Almost everyone knows someone who is oral deaf.

Yet, when I say that I am an Open Captioner to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, once the word “deaf” is uttered, most people imagine or mimic a person talking with their hands via American Sign Language (ASL). This familiar image of a deaf person is one of many barriers that prevent a large population of deaf people from gaining access to communication that hearing people take for granted.

I have provided live onsite Open Captioning services for almost two decades to individuals and audiences with hearing loss in classrooms, conference rooms, courtrooms, synagogues, cathedrals and arenas. I have captioned business and medical experts, religious leaders, educators as well as our Presidents. I use a small monitor for one person to view and, for audiences, large monitors and Jumbotrons, which are giant viewing screens with video above and captioning below.

There is a big difference between people whose first language is American Sign Language, and people who are oral deaf, who have what is often referred to as “the invisible disability.” There is also a big difference in how to communicate to this second group.

Although born deaf or early deafened (before developing language skills), most oral deaf people are raised in hearing households and fitted with hearing aids, which amplify sound waves coming into the ear, or cochlear implants, which bypass the ear and bring sound into the hearing center in the brain. They are taught by speech pathologists how to speak English and read lips.

Like any child raised in a hearing household, they do not “sign” and are mainstreamed with other, hearing children in school. Like the majority of hearing people, they live in the hearing culture, use spoken language to communicate and, like most hearing people, they may never learn or need to use sign language.

Most hearing people can’t fathom what it’s like to live in two worlds: to function as hearing and yet be deaf or hard of hearing. An oral deaf or hard of hearing person can easily have a conversation in a quiet setting with one or two people and it is easy to forget that they are deaf. But when more people and more physical distance are added, such as in a professional conference, in a roundtable among work colleagues, in a classroom or boardroom, a breakdown in communication is inevitable and communication access via captioning is a necessity, not a luxury.

There are a third and fourth group of people with hearing loss who use spoken language to communicate. Late-deafened people also do not use sign language because they lost their hearing long after they had been speaking and hearing language. When the loss occurs to adults, they and their loved ones need time to adjust to the new disability. The fourth group, hard of hearing people, are “more hearing” than deaf people, yet in certain circumstances still require communication access through captioning, assistive listening devices and hearing loops.

Thus, three groups of oral deaf people benefit from and sometimes need captioning.

I have witnessed disappointment and frustration when my consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing were deprived or denied communication access because of unconscious barriers that people and situations present. I too have encountered many barriers to my ability to provide communication access. My observations and experience have led me to develop insights on how to build bridges to communication.

Specific behavioral changes are needed so that we as a society do not unwittingly exclude and lose out on the participation of oral deaf people simply because of a communication breakdown. Education is a more graceful and much less expensive and much less painful solution than litigation or legislation. Everyone who reads this and receives Removing Unconscious Barriers© training can begin building the bridge to successful communication to people who are oral deaf or hard of hearing and will become better communicators in all circumstances. When we include everyone, everyone benefits.

Randi C. Friedman, CCP, CRR, RPR, has been providing Open Captioning to audiences for over 15 years. She has Open Captioned U.S. Presidents, Bon Jovi and ordinary people. She is a graduation and conference specialist. She and her company, The Open Captioners, educate business and government leaders, clergy, educators and the general population on Removing Unconscious Barriers (RUB)©. RUB seminars identify and provide solutions to communication access so that individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing can receive equal access to public events. As Randi sees it, "An evolved society seeks to include all its members."

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