Ask any seasoned deaf person if they would prefer coping with no sight or no hearing and, pretty consistently, you'll get the answer that it is far easier to be deaf than blind. On the other side of the sensory arena, ask any seasoned blind person the same question and you will get an absolute declaration that blindness is the easier sensory loss to address.

In either case, part of the solution to "working around" a sensory loss is to use the other in its place. Blind people learn to "see" what is around them by using sound. Deaf people learn to "hear" what is around them by fine-tuning their sense of sight.

When the sensory input channels for both sight and hearing are diminished or diminishing, the challenge of finding methods for communicating, participating and, in short, fully engaging in the joys of life loom larger, but are never insurmountable.

In the 21st century, where technology blossoms exponentially on an almost daily basis, there are plenty of work-arounds to be found. Because AccessWorld regularly addresses the use of technology for those who are blind or have low vision, this article will look at the combined vision/hearing disability from the vantage point of someone who has little or no hearing and a secondary disability of impaired vision.

Approaching the problem is simply for perspective in this article. There are an estimated four million Americans with combined vision and hearing disabilities and as we live longer, that number is steadily increasing.

Tell It Like It Is

With any disability, candor simplifies. If you have central but no peripheral vision, carrying a long white cane informs those around you that you have difficulty seeing, rather than allowing them to assume that you are rude or clumsy.

Similarly, if you tell those around you that you have difficulty hearing, they will generally speak up. If you don't tell them, you leave room for the mistaken assumption that you are not paying attention or not very smart!

Take Charge of Your Own Sound Environment

When you are blind or visually impaired, your hearing doesn't magically increase, but your attention to what you hear does. Hearing becomes more acute. In a social context, this means you listen more carefully to what is being said and how. Many blind people work in professions where the nuance of communication is essential— psychology, social service, law, and journalism—and individuals find that these nuances can be gleaned using clues other than the visual ones of body language and facial expression.

But if your hearing has decreased, the game changes somewhat. Perhaps you can hear just fine in a quiet room if the person speaking to you is three or six or perhaps eight feet away, but if the environment is noisy or the person addressing you is at a greater distance, their voice is inaudible or unintelligible.

The solution is to do everything you can to take charge and create an audio environment that works for you. At a meeting or in a restaurant where there will be ambient noise, choose a seat with a wall behind you. Thus, only the sound in front of you will come into your ears. Select a seat that is centrally located, placing you within equal range of as many of the voices as you want to hear as possible. If there is a choice, always choose smaller rooms over larger ones, and smaller groups over larger ones as well. In a lecture or performance situation, sit in the first or second row, and as directly in front of the person speaking or performing as possible. If background music is playing (and competing with the sounds of human voices that you want/need to hear), ask if it can be turned off or the volume decreased. Apply the same principles in your own home or the home of a friend or family member. If people are gathered for a meal, choose the most centrally located seat at the largest table. If the focus of the gathering is to share a movie, sit close to one of the speakers.

Sound Technology

It may sound clichéd, but there has been no better time to experience hearing loss than in the 21st century! Digital hearing aids are tiny and powerful. Many of them are nearly invisible and, while the sound may not be exactly what it would be if your biological hearing was perfect, the enhanced volume and clarity such devices can provide is astonishing.

As with any change, there is an adjustment period involved in learning to hear with hearing aids. You may experience the sense that your clothes are crackling or your hair is, that your own footsteps are clattering, or that the commonplace sounds of running water or opening food packages are suddenly raucous. When hearing aids are new, fine-tuning them to the individual takes a bit of time and expertise. Three or four trips to the audiologist, along with some patience and a willingness to analyze the situation, will improve your experience and have you reveling in the joy of hearing birdsongs and human conversation again with ease.

But hearing aids are just the tip of the technological iceberg when it comes to hearing loss. Bluetooth speakers and headsets can enhance the volume and audio clarity of your TV, telephone, audio book player, and more. A high performance Bluetooth sound bar, for example, can be paired with your TV, tablet, smartphone, and more, to deliver room-filling sound that is loud and clear for everyone.

Similarly, both wired and Bluetooth headsets can bring the sound from most electronics directly to your ears. Using a headset with your iPhone, for example, makes it much easier to hear and understand any audio from the phone, whether you are listening to music, an audio book, spoken GPS directions, or the other person in a phone conversation. In addition to the earbuds included in the purchase with most smartphones, there are a number of high performance wired and Bluetooth headsets to augment volume and clarity. Look for ones with inline volume controls.

Direct Connections

In addition to the variety of external speakers and headsets designed to enhance sound for everyone, the person who wears hearing aids has even more options for a direct connection to sound. From wearables to mini microphones, the hearing health marketplace is exploding with a smorgasbord of direct connection devices. Want to be sure you hear every word of a movie playing on your television? There is a device that can plug into the auxiliary port on your TV and deliver its audio directly into your hearing aids. The same technology can be used for direct delivery of sound from virtually any electronic device in your home or work environment.

Want to be sure you hear everything a presenter has to say? Ask him or her to clip a small microphone-like device to a jacket (or wear it around the neck) and every word will sound as though it is being spoken directly into your ear. Again, the same device could be used by a friend or family member walking with you through a mall or amusement park. Even though he or she is 20 feet away, with a direct-connect FM or Bluetooth device in hand, all commentary regarding the route you are taking or the description of sights around you will be easily heard and understood.

The guidance of an audiologist will be needed to select the best wireless hearing accessory, and to make sure that one is selected that is compatible with your particular hearing aids. You will also need the assistance of an audiologist or other hearing professional to pair your new accessory appropriately with your hearing aids. Phonak makes several excellent accessories but there are other manufacturers as well.

Sometimes, tweaking your hearing technology to play nicely with your vision technology can be a challenge, but as more people experience a combined vision and hearing loss, the larger the pool for sharing tips and tricks becomes. The bottom line is, just as you learned that life can be lived to the fullest without perfect vision, so you will also learn in time that impaired hearing can be accommodated with technology.

Whether out of sight or out of sound, there is always a way!

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Deaf-blind Access Technologies and Strategies