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Videoconferencing Tips for People With Hearing Loss

A few adjustments can make virtual meetings easier for everyone to follow

man wearing headset participating in videoconference call on laptop.

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En español | You're in the middle of a videoconference with six coworkers when something on the agenda hits a nerve and everyone begins talking over each other in an effort to be heard. Or perhaps your team leader turns her back to the web camera, and her voice becomes muffled as she talks her way through a presentation.

People working remotely will likely tell you videoconferencing apps such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts are the perfect lifelines to continuing business as usual during the coronavirus outbreak. But workers with hearing loss find that, while videoconferencing is an improvement over old-fashioned audio-only conference calls, it's far from ideal.

"Poor internet speed is the primary issue [during videoconferencing] because it causes frequent lapses in sound quality,” says John S. Oghalai, M.D., professor of otolaryngology and chair of the Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Southern California.

Communicating With a Face Mask

Trying to understand someone whose nose and mouth are covered can be tough when you rely on visual cues for comprehension. “Try to glean as much visual information as you can from the squint of their eyes and the furrows in their brow,” suggests USC's Oghalai. “For those with mild to moderate hearing loss, high-quality hearing aids with directional microphones and noise-blocking algorithms can be very helpful, as well.”

See our story on how to prevent your mask from interfering with your hearing aid.

That's not all. “The video often doesn't synchronize with the audio, so many of the subtle aspects related to lipreading and facial micro-expressions are lost,” Oghalai notes. He adds that while some people might not realize how much they rely on visual cues, “everybody develops these skills naturally during the development of hearing loss.

Reading these cues can increase understanding of speech up to 20 percent, even for someone who's had no formal training in lipreading, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

There are several tips that can help improve comprehension during virtual meetings. Before the videoconference, adjust your surroundings. Find a quiet room with good lighting. “For those with teenagers in the house, get them to turn off their video games, live group chats and movie watching when you have a critical videoconference meeting to attend,” says Oghalai. “Internet speed increases dramatically when they shut down.”

And ask your supervisor to establish a few ground rules for all participants. Those include:

  1. Use the video option. Require everyone attending a virtual meeting to show their faces. It's tempting to cover the camera or choose “audio only” on your computer or mobile device, but that makes it difficult for everyone else to follow along.

  2. Start off with introductions. Unless everyone is already closely acquainted, this can be a good opportunity for participants to adjust the audio on their computer or mobile device, as well as their hearing aids, before the meeting gets going.

  3. Provide a written agenda. During audio misfires it'll help everyone stay on track. And have participants share their screens when discussing a document.

  4. Take turns speaking. Some videoconferencing apps make it difficult for more than one person to talk at a time. If that's not the case, make a conscious effort to avoid interrupting others. Clicking the mute icon when you're not speaking will help keep butt-ins to a minimum. It'll also eliminate “background noise, which affects the ability to understand conversation,” says Deborah Berndtson, ASHA's associate director of audiology practices and an ASHA-certified audiologist.

  5. Record the meeting. This allows participants to revisit the conversation for clarity later.

If you still find yourself struggling, consider using earbuds or high-quality headphones that have noise-canceling features. They'll make it easier to hear without cranking up the volume.

If you wear hearing aids, look into whether they can be paired to your computer or mobile device via Bluetooth to enhance sound quality, suggests Berndtson: “Using a headset with an external microphone will often result in better sound quality than using a computer-based microphone and speaker system.”

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