Deaf Awareness in the Age of Technology

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A girl using sign language and facing a laptop computer.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 15% of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and older report some trouble hearing, and about 28.8 million US adults could benefit from using hearing aids. In honor of Deaf Awareness Month, let’s remember that communication equity begins with asking a d/Deaf person how they prefer to communicate and making the effort to remove barriers, accommodate preferences, and avoid assumptions.

The current technology revolution has brought dramatic improvements to hearing aids and cochlear implants, including built-in telecoils and Bluetooth that make possible a wireless connection with mobile devices, as well as whole-room “loop” amplification systems, FM systems, and more. This means that some smartphones can play music, video, and stream TV directly to hearing aids and cochlear implants (as well as voice calls). It also means that loop-equipped environments, such as lecture halls, can broadcast sound directly to attendee devices, dramatically improving a deaf or hard of hearing participant’s experience. There’s also a new class of off-the-shelf assistive listening devices, impressive and improving speech-to-text apps, mobile access to video relay services, and with the pandemic, improved access to captioning with video conferencing. Each advance matters and may even be transformative for certain individuals, but none is a blanket solution. For example, the NIDCD estimates that of the millions who could benefit by hearing aids, just 30% aged 70 and older has ever used them, a figure that drops to 16% for those aged 20 to 69. (Quick Statistics About Hearing | NIDCD [nih.gov])

A Diversity of d/Deaf Experiences

Individuals who identify with Deaf culture (“big D” Deaf) are fluent in American Sign Language or another sign language. ASL is a complete language with its own grammatical structure that makes use of facial, hand, and body positions and expressions. It is different from signed English. Most ASL users also use English, but some do not. They may or may not read lips (also known as “speechreading”). They may speak as well as sign. Some ASL users also wear hearing aids and/or use other forms of technology such as text apps for a written language and videophones and apps for use with manual signs.

Individuals who are “little d” deaf or hard of hearing do not identify with Deaf culture and embrace technology for communication to varying degrees. The use of technology is a matter of preference. It is also dependent on access, knowledge of options, opportunities for trial (and troubleshooting), and having the motivation and patience to adapt (particularly true for those who experience a decline in hearing as they age or from a traumatic event).

Communication is a Two-Way Street

Individuals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing work hard to participate in a hearing world. It’s also up to persons who hear to adjust habits, pay attention, and be willing to learn. Patience is more important than ever in this time of COVID-19. ASL requires facial gestures, masks obstruct communication beyond lip reading, and they muffle voices. For many adults and children who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing, the pandemic has been profoundly isolating. Clear masks fog up, glare is fatiguing and obstructs. Be aware of the d/Deaf and hard of hearing members of your community, their communication preferences, how they are managing the pandemic, and the heightened stress brought on by social distancing. Inclusion has never been more important.

Find your State and Territory AT Act Program to learn about and try a device before you buy. Many AT Act Programs also administer their state Telecommunications Equipment Distribution Program to provide free or low-cost telephone equipment to qualified individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

More Resources

Hearing Assistive Technology – the What, When, Who and Why (from the AT3 Center)

Assistive Listening Systems and Devices (from the National Association of the Deaf)

iCanConnect (the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program)