Everything from phone calls and client meetings to office chitchat can be a challenge for workers with hearing loss, which affects an estimated 34.6 million Americans 50 and older — including 8.5 percent of adults 55 to 64 living with hearing loss that’s disabling. Whether you’ve noticed small, age-related declines in your hearing or are living with a long-term hearing impairment, these expert-backed strategies can help set you up for workplace success.
1. Claim the best seat in the house at meetings
“One of the problems with hearing loss is not when you don’t hear — it’s when you think you’ve heard correctly but you haven’t,” says Lise Hamlin, director of public policy for the Rockville, Maryland-based Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). Even with hearing aids, catching every word at a work meeting can be challenging if you have hearing loss, she says.
Choose a seat next to the person who’s running the meeting to get the best view of attendees’ faces, so you can see their expressions and pick up extra clues by lip-reading. “In a big meeting, people talk to the person who’s chairing it,” Hamlin explains. You could also look for a seat at the center of the table near people you have a hard time hearing, suggests hearing advocate Shari Eberts, who shares tips and blogs at Living With Hearing Loss. Avoid seats that face a window, and adjust the blinds so that glare doesn’t obstruct your view of others.
2. Request written backup
Ask for a written agenda before meetings and for copies of meeting notes afterward, Hamlin says. Or write your own summaries of meetings and one-on-ones with your boss or coworkers and ask them for sign-off, Eberts suggests. “Don’t be afraid to confirm what you think you’ve heard,” Hamlin says.
3. Use on-screen captioning at virtual meetings
It’s easier to follow along during a virtual meeting when subtitles are scrolling at the same time. You can often get a useful transcript at the end of the call, too, Hamlin says. Check the captioning protocol in advance; on some platforms you may have to ask someone else to turn on captions before a meeting starts. For example, any meeting attendee can turn on captions in Google Meet, but the account owner or meeting organizer must enable captions on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
4. Put your smartphone to work
If you use a smartphone, an app that converts speech into text in real time could be helpful for phone calls, says Christine Morgan, president of the HLAA’s Twin Cities chapter. “Most people with hearing loss find phones extra difficult,” she notes. That’s because phone calls lack visual cues and can also vary in sound quality, explains audiologist Sarah Sydlowski, president of the American Academy of Audiology and audiology director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Hearing Implant Program.
There are several apps that use speech recognition software or, in one case, live stenographers to turn your conversation into captions you can read in real time on your phone. These include TextHear, as well as free apps certified by the Federal Communications Commission for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, including CaptionCall, ClearCaptions, InnoCaption, CaptionMate and Hamilton CapTel. Relay apps, such as T-Mobile’s IP Relay Mobile App or IWRelay VRS, use a live operator to communicate with the person you’re calling and then type their responses so you can read them.
Similar apps use your smartphone like a microphone and translate speech into on-screen text. These can help ensure you don’t miss a thing in one-on-ones and small meetings. Speech-to-text captioning apps include Live Caption and eyeHear for iOS devices, Speechnotes for Android devices and Ava for iOS and Android. Apps like these “have been life-changing for me,” says Eberts.
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5. Consider hearing aids
If hearing loss is interfering with your daily life — including your ability to do your job — it’s time for a hearing check, Sydlowski says. “Asking people to repeat themselves, having difficulty hearing in noisy environments and needing to sit close to people to talk and to see their face are all signs you need to have your hearing evaluated,” she says.
6. Add an assistive listening device
Personal amplifiers are a type of assistive listening device, or ALD, that use a small, wireless microphone to amplify conversations while reducing background noise. Some work with your hearing aids; others feature headphones or earbuds. Hamlin says she’s taken hers along on job interviews. “If the people I’m interviewing with feel awkward or unhappy about it, I don’t want to work there,” she says.
7. Ask for workplace accommodations
If hearing loss — with or without hearing aids — is interfering with your ability to perform your job, it’s time to consider requesting reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), an organization that provides free, expert advice about workplace disability issues. Like deafness, hearing impairment is covered by the ADA if it limits one or more major life activities, or has in the past.
You don’t have to disclose hearing problems during a job interview or even on the job (although you can be asked about medical conditions under some circumstances). However, it’s smart not to hide any difficulties you might be having, according to JAN. You can’t be fired for disclosing hearing loss, but your duties could change or your job could end if your hearing loss poses a serious safety threat. “It is better to disclose your disability and request accommodations before job performance suffers,” the group notes. Check your employee handbook or ask your boss or human resources department about your company’s procedures for requesting accommodations.
8. Know what to request
Hamlin and the HLAA recommend figuring out which modifications or adjustments you might need in advance, then providing your employer with possible solutions, including costs and places to buy any devices or systems you recommend. Possibilities include:
- A desk in a quieter area.
- Assistive listening devices or systems for meetings, conferences and presentations.
- A desk phone that’s hearing-aid compatible or, if you need it, a captioned telephone service. A government program covers the cost of the phone and phone service once they’re installed.
- A smartphone (if supplied by your employer) that’s hearing-aid compatible or that lets you install apps for easier phone calls.
- Written meeting agendas, meeting notes, memos and work assignments.
- CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation), a service that uses a writer to transcribe what’s happening (such as in a meeting) and display the text on a computer, smartphone or TV screen.
- Emergency warning systems. You might not hear the fire alarm blaring; alternatives include strobe lights, computer-screen pop-ups and vibrating pagers, according to the HLAA.
Sari Harrar is a contributing editor to AARP The Magazine who has written on health, science and consumer affairs for over 20 years.