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I have a severe hearing loss (auditory neuropathy). The gist of it is that I struggle to fit sounds to words. I can hear that someone is talking, but I don't understand what they said. It's kind of like speaking to people who mumble a lot or speak in a different dialect.

As a result, verbal communication is often very difficult. Meetings are very difficult and I tend to not understand most of what was said. My hearing is worse with groups, where I not only have to shift my attention from speaker to speaker, but I also cannot easily ask for repetition.

Even worse, phones are almost unusable. For some speakers, I can't understand a thing they say on the phone.

As a result, I thrive in text-based communication. Email is my primary method of communication. Conversations that are done via written text are fluid and intelligent, while in-person conversations tend to become a mess where I have to ask for repetition multiple times. Quite frankly, I feel that I look stupid when this happens (and when I worked in retail, several customers were brash enough to point that out).

I don't want to create a burden for management or my co-workers, but I can work so much better if communication is provided in a form that I can work with (namely written text). But I understand that verbal communication is much faster and fluid for most people.

It seems reasonable to expect that people email me instead of calling me. Meetings are harder, though. There's no minutes being kept or anything, and it seems like too much to expect people to use a different format of meeting.

For what it's worth, most of my job can be done without much human contact. I'm a software engineer and come May, I really just have to meet up for in-person meetings three days a week with everything else being done remotely.

Thus, my question is how I can improve this communication, without burdening others? What can a person with a severe hearing loss do to improve communication?

  • this question is off-topic because it requires medical expertise to answer. Side note top user #3 at Stack Overflow is deaf – gnat Apr 7 '14 at 7:01
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    @gnat communication in a team doesn't seem like a medical problem to me. The medical problem is auditory neropathy, which is mentioned by the OP to complete the background story. The question though is entirely about team communication, and not about his hearing problem. The question is perfectly on-topic to me. – Rafael Emshoff Apr 7 '14 at 8:22
  • @RafaelCichocki I happen to be related to someone with hearing loss and in my experience, responsible answer to this question indeed requires relevant medical professional expertise – gnat Apr 7 '14 at 8:28
  • If they took "some" minutes of meetings, they'd be doing everyone a favor. – user8365 Apr 7 '14 at 18:15
  • @JeffO yes - that's what I'm going at in my answer. Since they don't do much documentation, they could work with Mike to take care of it, and in effect, like you said "do everyone a favor". – Rafael Emshoff Apr 7 '14 at 18:24
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Your manager should have understood from the start that you do have a hearing disability that they have to accommodate. It is actually the company's responsibility to fulfill those accommodations (at least in the US, thanks to ADA requirements). This could be through use of a TTY machine for phone conversations, etc. You shouldn't feel like you'd be a burden to them if they need to give you extra tools to allow you to do your job.

However, it's understandable that not everyone at the company will know of your hearing loss. It is generally helpful to open a meeting with people who you don't know to let them know off the bat that you may not be able to understand what they're saying, and that if it's possible, they should communicate over text. Otherwise, you should provide them with the expectation that they may have to repeat themselves. Co-workers should be able to understand, and should not get frustrated or agitated. If they do, that's a different problem involving that co-worker.

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When I worked at IBM, there were 5 or 10 hearing impaired employees, out of 5000 engineers and programmers at that facility; it was huge! One was even a manager. The deaf programmers knew sign language. Occasionally, e.g. at training classes, IBM arranged for an interpreter. Do you know ASL (American Sign Language)? I think that is the standard. I'm suggesting that, on the off chance that your employer would accommodate that, AND that you wouldn't be embarrassed. The deaf programmers rarely wanted interpreters because it made them self-conscious, the extra attention it drew!

I attended meetings led by the deaf manager. He could barely hear himself speak, so he prefered to write, but he was really easy to understand when he did talk. He told us that

  • we needed to maintain a direct line of sight when we spoke to him
  • never to interrupt each other, as he could only hear one person at a time

We adapted quickly, it wasn't a hassle. Between lip reading and maybe 10% functional hearing, he was fine. It helps that the context is work. He led meetings by writing everything on whiteboards or with handouts, just for backup. He did well at IBM, managed over a dozen non-hearing impaired programmers because it was extra helpful to have things in writing. He used internal IM and email, rather than lots of meetings or audio conference calls, which everyone preferred anyway.

I wrote this in order to give you some suggestions, that I know worked for others. Please, please read panoptical's answer very carefully if you are in the USA! It is the company's responsibility to accommodate you, especially if you are in an EO (equal opportunity) workplace. Not all companies are, but nearly all must be ADA compliant.

For reference, see Q&A - Deafness and Hearing Impairments at Work and the ADA, Accommodating people with disabilities, sections 9 - 16.

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I like some of the suggestions already here, but I strongly disagree with a point about the ADA. This is a great link, btw.

Yes - the employer absolutely has to work with you to provide a "reasonable accomodation".

But - the employer does not have to be psychic, and does not have to provide accommodations unasked for. In fact, to do so can be seen as treating employees unfairly and it can also be a huge waste of time. For example, a person with a speech impairment may sound like someone who is deaf from birth, but they may actually hear quite fine and require no hearing related accommodations - so getting them a sign language interpreter would be both useless and insulting.

To work out an accommodation you have to:

A - Choose whether you want the employer to be aware of the issue. This is a very personal choice, and relates to how much help you need, what the risks of disclosure are and how badly the lack of help will impact your performance.

B - Figure out thoughts on what options work for you and be ready to recommend them. Asking, with no offers of ideas, for an accommodation may mean that you get a suboptimal solution.

C - Realize that it's not "any accommodation" it's a "reasonable accommodation" - a company like IBM may be able to afford an interpreter on staff, and that's quite reasonable with 5-10 deaf employees around. A 10 man shop with 1 deaf employee may not be able to afford the extra salary, but may be able to get by with cheaper alternatives. So be ready to discuss alternatives and listen to counter offers

Ideas for Hearing Impairment

I went to RIT, which is colocated with NTID (the National Technical Institute for the Deaf) and I worked in student government with deaf students at all levels of interaction. I realize that the deaf to hearing communication skill set isn't a one size fits all, so ability to sign, ability to lip read, etc. go hand in hand with the individual's experience.

Things that I've seen that work, particularly for someone who can here ... some... but who has a hard time in groups or with other auditory interference:

  • Appoint a moderator for the meeting and follow a more rigorous speaking pattern - like Robert's Rules of Order. Pass a speaking stick if you have to - but restrict communication to a more 1 to 1 like interaction. This actually benefits the whole team - the number of time ideas get missed or skipped because the conversation got fragemented into subgroups is pretty significant.

  • With a moderator, it's much easier to get people to clarify their speech, speaking slower and clearer so you have a better chance of hearing it.

  • Have a note taker. In this day and age, it could even be possible for the note taker to touch type notes that are broadcasted via a Web Presentation or on a projector so that EVERYONE can see and agree to the notes as they are taken. For agile development, some forms of progress are documented very briefly by sticky notes, which may be OK, so long as you can see the sticky notes, see the movement and are clear on what the progress means.

  • Agree on SOME cases where having it written down is beneficial for the team - for example, a blurb on stories, use cases, requirements, or a specific "how-to" document may be useful for everyone, so getting the team to the habit of documenting work that helps everyone is a real win overall and not just for you.

  • Ask for individual communication in written form first so you can prep and respond that way as your most efficient means. And work with the team to find as many text-based mechanisms as can be supported in the company - email, wikis, IM, text message...

The trick is how much you want to make your manager and your team aware of the need for accommodation. You will be asking people to change their patterns, but they will get a more fully interactive team (with you in it!) and the benefit of your insight and support in a way that you couldn't before. That sounds like a fair trade to me and worth the effort - but it's your choice on how much you want to keep your condition private vs. asking for help.

  • I do like the idea of getting someone to do a live semi-transcription of the meeting, even if it isn't full or official minutes. – keshlam Apr 7 '14 at 23:32
  • That is the same link that I referenced, the United States EEOC. They mention ADA related requirements, though as you said, it is complicated! – Ellie Kesselman May 2 '14 at 1:06
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TL;DR;
Don't focus on verbal communication as your weakness, rather use written communication as your strength.
I'm sure you have some kind of documentation standards. If you can establish responsibility within your team for the written stuff - your team will come to you on their own and want to give you input for the written stuff. If they know someone is maintaining the document structure, they will also want to put input into them.
This way your team benefits from written references, and you benefit from your team giving input in written format.
Go to your manager with your problem, and if they see you are willing to use your strengths (i.e. written communication), then they will be less worried about your weaknesses (verbal communication).


Don't require from yourself, that you should be able to do the same things with your disability as others would.
On the other hand, it's great that you want to work seamlessly with the team without seeming to require extra treatment.

Suggestion:
Since you prefer the written form - try to take over responsibilities in the written domain. Even if most people prefer to communicate verbally, they are usually quite happy to have a written reference with the most important points ("black-on-white", as the Germans say - meaning clearly expressed and unambiguous).
Discussions are often more of a brainstorm format - and especially with complex topics, even if everyone agrees that a discussion was fruitful, people will remember different aspects of the discussion. A written summary with a few simplified explicit points that everyone can agree on is a good way to finish a discussion - often only then will some people in a team understand the whole picture.

Examples:

  • You mentioned that there are no meeting minutes - you could offer to write them: "So, how should we summarize the last 15 minutes... - a) you want to continue building the database to not fall too far behind schedule, b) Steve and Ray will test the open-source library, c) All work on the front-end will be stopped until we get explicit feedback from the client on the presentation requirements... does everyone agree on these points now?"
    Others will have the benefit of agreeing on a clear and concise way to express the discussion. You will have the benefit of staying informed about the big-picture.
  • Offer to be responsible for documentation/templates/knowledge-base; your team will soon learn to appreciate that you put effort into keeping written documents understandable. "Doesn't it seem like the client is wanting different things now than at the beginning of the project - lets check the specification... How much of our client's budget did we use for their project already - Mike made a template, everyone has been logging their hours and expenses there, it should give you an accurate picture... I really like Mike's best-practice analysis on commenting code, I can much more easily work with recent code that has been commented than our older code-bases."

The nearest I can relate to your problem, is that I work in an international environment and it's sometimes quite tough to understand others with a heavy accent, or if I'm speaking with natives who have a terrific speaking speed. I always repeat what I think they said, and try to get them to agree on a simple way of expressing what we're trying to get at.
Furthermore, at my previous employer we had zero documentation, and once I started to maintain some regular formats for specifications, test-cases and commenting code, my colleagues simply picked up on it and started using my formats on their own, attaching them to e-mails and using them as references in meetings.

  • meeting minutes - you could offer to write them Just pointing out one needs to hear what is said in order to write it down. Good suggestion, but may have some practical limitations. – rath Apr 7 '14 at 17:14
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    @rath yes, the obvious solution would be for the OP to ask what should be written down in the meeting minutes. This gives the OP a legitimate reason to ask for repetition, and doesn't require him to follow the entire discussion. – Rafael Emshoff Apr 7 '14 at 17:17
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(1) Have you investigated Cochlear implants? Under ACA, which outlaws non-coverage of pre-existing conditions ( http://obamacarefacts.com/pre-existing-conditions.php ), the cost of Cochlear implants may be covered by your health insurance. You need to check that, too.

https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/coch.aspx

I am, of course, not a medical doctor, but I think it might be well worth your your while to discuss your options with a hearing specialist.

(2) In the meantime, the ADA (American Disabilities Act) requires that employers and providers of public facilities make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americans_with_Disabilities_Act_of_1990#Title_I.E2.80.94Employment

ADA as such does not specifically list disabilities.

Summary:
Given the severity of your hearing condition, you could look towards fundamentally changing your situation (intensive lip reading training, a Cochlear implant, voice to text converter: http://www.entrepreneur.com/blog/225584 ). I imagine this way you could make verbal communication a more reliable and less frustrating option.

I want to encourage you to finding a way to improve your situation on your own initiative. Even though it is reasonable of you to expect accommodation for your disability from your team, you yourself are part of the solution because you are in the best position to effectively deal with the constraints given by your condition.

Crediting Rafael Cichocki for the edit.

  • Cochlear implants may or may not be useful - and there is no way to tell. Lipreading won't help in meetings with multiple people speaking. There are much better answers here. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Feb 15 '17 at 13:21

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