How to Talk to the Hard of Hearing

Kate Delany avatar

by Kate Delany |

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Cystic fibrosis took my sister’s hearing. Well, actually, it was prolonged exposure to Tobi (tobramycin).

Tobramycin is a frequently prescribed bactericidal antibiotic, or aminoglycoside, that’s effective in dealing with CF exacerbations. Because it’s so good at beating back pseudomonas, many adult CFers use it frequently and for extended periods.

Studies are being conducted to find ways to screen for ototoxicity in cystic fibrosis patients, so hopefully younger CFers will be spared this devastating side effect. For my sister, Mary, though, and many other adult CFers, tobramycin-induced hearing loss is irreversible. Needless to say, it has prompted major life changes.

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Learning to communicate better

My sister’s hearing loss has also given me insight into the ways that I — and the general public — can do better when talking to the hard of hearing. With a little effort and attention, conversations with people who are deaf or hard of hearing can be more productive.

Following are some of the lessons I’ve learned so far.

1. Get (and maintain) their attention

More intentionality is required when talking to the hard of hearing. This is not a bad thing. The off-the-cuff things people holler between rooms or floors is not peak communication, nor are mumbled asides. So, I don’t mind that when talking to my sister, I need to be looking directly at her to establish that we’re in a conversation.

Sometimes if we’re in a crowded space, I will touch her arm as a prelude to a remark, to let her know I have something I’m trying to say. It also helps to use her name in the conversation so it’s clear that my words are directed at her.

Getting attention is essential, and so is maintaining it. I am continuously reminding my kids of this. They will be excited to show Aunt Mare a stuffie or a Lego creation, and will then run off in the direction of the item they want to share, talking merrily as they’re walking away. I remind them that they need to be facing the person they’re talking to, and ideally, looking them in the eye during the conversation. 

2. Consider the setting

In addition to my sister’s CF-related hearing loss, my immediate family is also impacted by my father’s hearing impairment, as he suffered profound hearing loss while serving in Vietnam. My father’s bad ear is his left. My sister’s bad ear is her right. We need to keep this in mind when assigning seats for a holiday meal, or even just sitting down to have an informal conversation. If you’re unsure if the seating arrangement is ideal, then ask the person who is hard of hearing. It will save them the awkwardness of having to ask people to change seats.

Some settings pose obvious challenges for conversations with the hard of hearing. A crowded bar with a live band and all the TVs simultaneously on will make talking hard — and probably not only for the hard of hearing. Though hearing aids do come with adjustable settings, sometimes it’s wiser to adjust the physical setting. Although we might want to talk in all places, not all places are set up to have a productive talk.

3. Keep your hands away from your face

COVID-19 has taught many of us how often we touch our faces. Research suggests it’s around 23 times an hour. What’s more, it’s hardwired into us as a self-soothing, refocusing reflex that helps with information retention. So, we are unlikely to stop touching our faces, even if we remind ourselves to stop.

Another truth served up by COVID-19: We all read lips to some extent, even if we don’t realize it. We rely on elements such as lip reading, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues to help us process meaning in a conversation. For this reason, it’s so important to keep your face visible when talking with the hard of hearing. Consider how pivotal animated facial expressions are in American Sign Language. Our faces add to the information we are trying to relay. So keep your face clear! 

4. Speak up when you mask up

Although masks may have been new to the general public last year, masking up has been a CF reality for a long time. Masks are important for protecting a CFer’s health. They do, however, muffle speech. Clear masks can help by removing the lip reading barrier. When masked and talking with the hard of hearing, be sure to speak louder than you normally would maskless.

Here’s to improved communication with the hard-of-hearing CFers in your life and anyone else impacted by hearing impairment!


Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Linda Delany avatar

Linda Delany

Wonderful, informative article

Denise Menzel avatar

Denise Menzel

Great tips! Thanks!

Georgeanne Nelson avatar

Georgeanne Nelson

So many informative insights, Kate. Thanks for the reminders for speaking with a hard of hearing individual.


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