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Making Virtual Gatherings Hearing-Friendly This Holiday Season

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Tips for Better Hearing and Communication with Hearing Loss

By Carolyn Stern, Asst. Director of Outreach and Strategic Initiatives

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For a summary of holiday communication tips click the link above. Otherwise read on for the complete post.

Carolyn Stern of the Center for Hearing and Communication
Carolyn Stern, MBA

The pandemic will prevent many of us from keeping our traditional ways of celebrating this holiday season with friends and family. While this is certainly sad, there is an opportunity for staying connected virtually – with the right technology in place. As holiday gatherings shift to virtual ones, some of the usual challenges for people with hearing loss remain. These include listening fatigue, coping with distracting background noise and difficulty following conversations and cross talk. I am hopeful people with hearing loss, myself included, may feel more a part of it all this season with some helpful tips.

The tips covered here focus on the virtual technology setup, hearing devices, communication strategies and language access through captioning and sign language interpreters. Taking the time to integrate these arrangements ahead of time, some of which will lower fatigue from videoconferences, can benefit everyone, not just those with hearing loss.

Virtual Technology Setup

Ensure Quality Audio with High-Speed Internet

Ensuring quality of the audio transmitted during a video call can help tremendously. All participants should check the strength of their internet speed quality and Wi-Fi signal. And, fewer devices using the same internet/Wi-Fi at once can also help. For more on this topic, check out this excellent article from The Washington Post: “Bad Wi-Fi is Slowing You Down. Fix Yours Without Spending a Dime.”

Use Headset/Microphone

All participants should wear a headset with a built in microphone, wear earbuds (e.g., AirPods) or use an external wired or wireless microphone connected to the screen device to improve the quality of the transmission of spoken language over video. Eliminate music, distracting noise, streaming football games and appliances running in the background, too.

Connect Hearing Devices to Screen Device for Direct Audio Input

For hearing aid or cochlear implant users, consider a direct connection device or Bluetooth. CHC audiologist Jane Auriemmo guides you through the process in the blog post “Tips for Improving Audio Quality on Videoconferences.”

Zoom holiday gathering

Take a few minutes to assess together everyone’s placement within their video screen at the start of the video call. This will ensure optimal viewing for picking up nonverbal cues. Here are the things to check for:

  1. Sit reasonably close to the camera with the full face centered in the video

  2. Make sure the head clears one inch from the top of the box and the mouth does not cut off at the bottom, especially when looking down and talking at the same time.

  3. Use good lighting to brighten the face.

  4. Avoid backlighting from a window, mirror or lamp behind the speaker.

  5. Request to have all cameras on (while respecting that may not always be possible)

  6. Label names on each video box and ask everyone to say their name before speaking each time. This can help the person with hearing loss locate who is speaking.

  7. Request no virtual backgrounds (see below for an explanation).

Hold Off On Virtual Backgrounds

Virtual backgrounds, a fun feature that replaces a real world background with a virtual image such as a sunny beach or a clutter-free bookcase, make the video stutter and appear choppy. It also reduces the depth of field, which makes it harder to pick up on facial cues and speechread.

Communication Strategies

Assign Roles and Follow an Agenda

Consider asking one or two attendees in advance to run the virtual holiday gathering. This role is similar to running a meeting where there’s an agenda and people are called on to speak one at a time. This may feel unnatural and unfun, but it really can lessen listening fatigue for everyone. It also reduces the excess noise and confusion caused by cross-talk and attendees vying to get heard.

Provide Visual Support

To further support people with hearing loss, share any written readings or toasts in advance and on the shared screen in real-time or in the chat. Encourage use of the Chat feature for questions, comments and general information. If using Zoom, instruct users to move the Chat box to the side of the screen so it does not block any speakers.

Communication Etiquette

Everyone should be mindful that excessive chatting is distracting. Slow down the pace and allow for pauses. This will allow people with hearing loss to process what was said and respond before moving onto the next topic.

Keep the Gathering Small

If possible, keep the virtual gatherings small. Just like in-person get-togethers, the more people, the harder it is to follow the conversation, especially for those with hearing loss. If you’re hosting, regardless of the size of the gathering, share some of these suggestions with your guests in advance. If you’re joining someone else’s virtual event, introduce these ideas ahead of time and see what’s possible.

Throughout the holiday season, schedule a few smaller gatherings with one or two people for meaningful connection and conversation. For example, after a larger family Zoom call of 12, I arranged for one-on-one video calls with a couple of family members for quality catch up that simply is not possible in a larger gathering, especially with a hearing loss. For those calls, I used a mobile relay captioning app (see below for options).

Connect Before or After the Meal

For most people with hearing loss, it is challenging and tiring to follow a conversation while eating. My suggestion is not to “Zoom” during the actual eating part of the meal. Enjoy a drink and toast to kick off the evening and rejoin virtually after the meal. Many articles recommend breaking from tradition and doing fun virtual activities: invite everyone to share a story, a toast, photos or even play a game online.

If you want to connect virtually while sitting at a holiday table, below are my suggestions along with a photo of how this could be set up:

  1. If possible, seat everyone who is with you in your home on one side of the table or one half of the table.

  2. Place the screen devices (i.e. laptop, computer, tablet or smartphone) on a tray table (propped up higher than the meal table) on the opposite side of the table or at the head of the table.

  3. Consider using a tripod with a mount for a smartphone or tablet ( or a laptop tripod for a laptop.

Dining table optimized for a virtual holiday gathering

Laptop displaying the videoconference on a laptop tripod and a smartphone in a tripod mount, plus a smartphone displaying a speech-to-text app (Google Live Transcribe) in the middle of the table. In the foreground is an additional smartphone for a closer view of the participants.

Arrange for Captions or Sign Language Interpreter

Depending on the communication preferences of the person with hearing loss attending, arranging for captions or a sign language interpreter or both is so important. Here are some of the ways to provide provide these accommodations:

  1. Hire a captioner and/or a sign language interpreter to join the videoconference remotely.

  2. Host the meeting in Google Meet for automated captions. For Zoom, integrate with an AI captioning service such as Otter, Ava or Webcaptioner. Recently, Zoom added automated captions to Business and Enterprise accounts.

  3. Utilize a caption relay service such as InnoCaption for captions or Video Relay Services (VRS) for access to sign language Interpreters. Both services are available no charge for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

While many of us will experience a different holiday season from the past ones, I do hope some of these tips will make whatever type of virtual gathering you host or attend, whether big or small, more accessible to all individuals with hearing loss.

Perspective from Advocate Arlene Romoff

Arlene Romoff Comedy Night honoree 2017
Arlene Romoff

Hearing advocate, author and CHC Board member, Arlene Romoff, has guided so many people struggling with hearing loss over the years. Let’s hear her favorite tips for managing communication at virtual gatherings this season:

These are wonderful suggestions – every single one! Definitely get that computer sound directly into your hearing aid or cochlear implant processor! Even a few inches closer to your “ears” makes a difference in your comprehension and effort to understand speech.

And, yes – make sure the event has an “emcee” to lead and coordinate the conversations. Ideally, have the person with hearing loss take on this task, so s/he always knows what’s going on.

And, finally, need a fun activity to engage everyone? Have a scavenger hunt! Describe an item to bring back to the table – specify color, size, attributes – use your imagination! Then have each family “show and tell” what they’ve found. This is a proven hit, and may even become your next holiday tradition!

Be sure to check out Arlene’s “Holiday Madness: 7 Tips to Better Communication” for Hearing Loss Magazine. It remains an indispensable source of coping tips for in-person holiday gatherings.

We Want to Hear From You

If you have any other tips, feel free to share them with us.

We wish you all the best during this holiday season.

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