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Some needs in the community are plain for all to see. Take, for instance, mobility challenges. When we see someone facing a mobility issue, we can witness the need for assistance and step in to help. Our public institutions also step in to assist with the needs that are visible. However, invisible disabilities are those that tend to receive the least public attention and assistance. In some cases, those who have invisible disabilities also face such barriers to care and support that they start to ignore their own needs. They might even adapt to a culture that ignores invisible needs. In addition to the many other invisible conditions in our communities, hearing loss can be difficult see, understand, and address. When a person in the community has a hearing issue, it is possible not to notice that communication is an issue. We might notice that the person is asking us to repeat ourselves or asking what we said, but for some reason it doesn’t compute that the person might have an ongoing issue with hearing loss. Not only do some in the community ignore hearing issues but some individuals start to ignore their own hearing needs. Let’s consider some of the ways that we can alert ourselves to the hearing needs in our communities and step in to offer assistance.
When we are in public spaces such as shops, community centers, libraries, places of worship, or public buildings, we interact with strangers in casual conversations. These interactions can be complex, particularly when we are learning what to expect from another individual. Rather than seeing, understanding, and responding to their communication styles, we might experience differences as barriers. Language differences are one clear example of a communication barrier that requires assistance to integrate our communities. Hearing loss is another context in which barriers to communication can be resolved with a little help. How can you identify someone in the community who might have a hearing issue? One of the clearest signs is a person who asks you to repeat yourself, clarify, or speak up. These requests can happen from time to time in a noisy place among those who do not have hearing loss, but they are much more common and consistent among those who have hearing loss. If you notice someone who is asking for this kind of repetition and clarification, you can take the opportunity to offer assistance. Another way to identify someone who might have a hearing issue is to notice a person checking out on a conversation. When you witness someone who doesn’t seem to understand what is going on but doesn’t ask for repetition or help, you might be interacting with someone who has undisclosed hearing loss.
Although you will not want to offer assistance to someone who doesn’t need it, there are steps you can take to help someone in the community who might have hearing loss. The best accommodation is to create a space for communication where conditions are amenable to people with a variety of needs. You can take the opportunity to offer to move to a quieter place for your conversation. When you are taking care of official business, you can also offer to provide information in writing. If a person has undisclosed hearing loss, that information can be crucial to their understanding in the future. One possibility is to engage directly in a discussion with this person about their needs. Always lead with open-ended questions. You can ask if there is something you can do to make communication easier, and the answers might surprise you. Sometimes a simple accommodation will make it possible to communicate when it seems otherwise difficult. Although these accommodation strategies can help someone who needs it, the best way to help someone with hearing loss is to encourage treatment. Accommodation strategies only go so far toward assistance, and opening up a conversation about treatment can lead to a lasting solution. If you know someone in your community who might have untreated hearing loss, this conversation about treatment can make the difference between a future of sustained communication, so don’t hesitate to inquire about your community member’s needs.