Talking about Hearing Loss: Why Your Disclosure Method Matters

Talking about Hearing Loss: Why Your Disclosure Method Matters
Cyndi Connolly
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Imagine your first week at a new job – you’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you are excited about all the opportunities that come with your new position. There’s just one little thing holding you back – you live with hearing loss and haven’t disclosed it to your boss and coworkers yet. Your hearing loss means it can be fundamentally more difficult to follow meetings and presentations, as well as stay in the loop on projects and other endeavors. While explaining your hearing needs can help others communicate with you better, it can be a complicated decision how and when to disclose hearing loss. 

Hearing loss can have a negative impact on many areas of life, especially when it is left untreated. In our workplace example, studies have found that workers with untreated hearing loss earn significantly less than their peers without hearing impairments. Hearing loss makes it more challenging to connect conversationally and can limit social patterns and impact mental health. To add to the complexity of the issue, people with hearing loss often fear they will be stigmatized if they disclose their hearing loss, although research provides evidence that disclosure is most often assistive.

What research coming out of Massachusetts Eye and Ear (one of Harvard’s specialized research hospitals) has shown is that people disclose hearing loss in varying degrees. A recent study of over 300 subjects with hearing loss determined 3 general approaches to hearing loss disclosure and examined some of the advantages and limitations of each method.

Most Private: Non-Disclosure

For situations where you don’t want to talk about their hearing challenges, non-disclosure methods address communication problems without mentioning hearing loss. In non-disclosure people make conversational requests that are common for people both with and without hearing loss. Phrases like “Please repeat what you just said?” and “Can you speak up?” are used to change communication while not drawing attention to a hearing issue.

Non-disclosure tactics can work in settings where you feel you need to maintain privacy about your hearing loss, as well as in passing encounters such as those with customers, neighbors or cashiers. While non-disclosure is your right, it can limit your access to accommodations that better serve you. 

In the Middle: Basis Disclosure

For those comfortable talking about their hearing loss, basis disclosure is a disclosure framework that helps others acknowledge and address hearing issues. Basis disclosure is formatted around talking about your hearing loss and may include details such as the causes or severity of your specific hearing issue. 

Basis disclosure can be very helpful for establishing your communication challenges, but it doesn’t proactively suggest appropriate accommodations. Instead, basis disclosure is a “just the facts” approach that allows others to consider your hearing needs when addressing you.

Most Open: Multipurpose Disclosure

Multipurpose disclosure is the method that is the most open about hearing loss. It differs from basis disclosure in the depth of the approach: in addition to talking about one’s own hearing loss, suggestions are also offered about how to improve communication. Multipurpose disclosure is not only frank about hearing limitations, it is proactive in finding solutions and accommodations. 

For conversing with a friend this may be a comment like “To understand you better, it helps when I can watch your lips while you speak.” In a learning environment, someone practicing multipurpose disclosure could say “To help me comprehend the material, I need the information in films presented with captions.” Using multipurpose disclosure teaches others what works best for you and can help you access tools you need to fully communicate. 

Putting It All Together

The level at which you choose to disclose your hearing loss is always up to you, and it can vary from situation to situation. Having these disclosure methods in mind can help shape the strategy you ultimately take. In the Massachusetts Eye and Ear study, researchers were most excited about the potential of multipurpose disclosure to best serve those with hearing loss. 

While non-disclosure and basis disclosure can help improve a difficult hearing situation in the short term, multipurpose disclosure helps make the world more accessible by improving and diversifying how we communicate with each other and why we take hearing challenges into consideration. Although it can feel the most vulnerable, the multipurpose approach can be the most fruitful for both the person with hearing loss and those around them.