Gael Hannan: Helping Your Clients Help Themselves

By Gael Hannan

One of the most challenging aspects of living with hearing loss is telling other people what we need from them.  

For many people, this just doesn’t come easy, especially those who have lost their hearing as an adult. Having to ask others to modify their speech or behavior – speak up, face me, say that again – can be a painful process, a continuing series of tiny blows to a person’s pride and self-esteem. It seems needy.  

The alternative is to avoid asking for help and just muddle through conversations. But if the goal is to avoid bringing attention to one’s hearing loss, this avoidance tactic often has the opposite result. People will notice that something isn’t quite right, and the hearing aid user may put the blame on devices that don’t live up to the hype. Oh, those poor hearing aids – how can they do the job they were designed for, if the user has unrealistic expectations of their ability to restore natural hearing? Hearing aids are marvels of science which can reconnect people to the world of sound – and they work even better when supported by non-technical tactics.

How can you, the hearing health professional, help create better life situations for your clients? The clue lies in the term hearing health; if you are a person-centered audiologist, you understand that a healthy life with hearing loss means the client accepts the diagnosis and uses a range of strategies, both technical (amplification and other technology, such as hearing loops, Bluetooth, captioning and smartphone technology) and non-technical. The hearing health professional must drive this process, although in partnership with the client, who must buy in, or it simply won’t work. 

Although I grew up with hearing loss, I didn’t start using hearing aids until age 20. But another 20 years went by before I finally got a grip on my hearing loss – I realized that I was responsible for my own hearing loss success, and that meant accepting help from others and using recommended resources. I learned that:

  • I had to be honest, both about the fact of my hearing loss and how I was communicating – or not – in a given moment.
  • I had to be knowledgeable about my hearing loss. What kind of loss is it? What can be done about it? Who can help? What are the questions I should ask? What do I need to do to make this life better?
  • I had to communicate my needs and advocate for myself in difficult communication environments.
  • I had to work with my audiologist, using his/her expertise and referrals for additional resources.

These hard-earned realizations only came about after I finally connected with a other people with hearing loss – it was like a huge, life-changing light bulb came on in my life. But hearing loss has gone mainstream since then and, today, people shouldn’t have to wait as long as I did before they understand the Big Picture of hearing loss. As I said in my book The Way I Hear It

"Absorbing the shocking reality of hearing loss takes time and support — from hearing care professionals who can paint that important Big Picture for us, our family and friends, other people with hearing loss, informative Internet sites, and consumer organizations. When we admit our loss and reach out for help, life with hearing loss will be better." (The Way I Hear It, page 5)

As a skilled clinician, you have the power to position hearing loss in a way that makes sense for your client. You are able to promote the concept that their hearing aids will work best when reinforced with soft strategies such as knowing how to manipulate the environment (“could we move over here to talk?”), understanding optimal communication situations (noisy restaurants aren’t one of them), and assertiveness in having needs met. You can help instill the desired perspective of a positive self-identity: “There’s no shame in having hearing loss and I have every right to participate and be included – and I know how to do it!”

Engage your client in conversation about their needs and lifestyle and provide referrals to consumer organizations, and valuable resources such as books (may I suggest mine), websites, or DVDs that help clarify the hearing loss life and the strategies that make it successful. If we, the hearing loss advocates, keep repeating this, we do so because it’s what our people need: These valuable resources will boost our knowledge and our confidence.
It’s a two-way street. You’re helping your clients help themselves – and strengthening their relationship with you, their involved and committed hearing health professional.