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I have been hearing impaired since birth due to nerve damage. Since the problem is with the nerves themselves, there is no treatment so there's no hearing aid or surgery that can help.

I read lips to some extent, and that combined with my remaining hearing, and positioning myself where my good ear is to people and they are in my line of sight gets me past almost all situations so most people don't know.

The problem comes with the remaining time such as when someone is behind me or on my bad side, rooms with plenty of conversations or poor acoustics and I have to let people know, as I have not responded to people in the past and they thought that I have been rude or ignoring them.

Since this is an effectively "invisible disability" that limits me only when I can't compensate for it, how do I broach the matter diplomatically? I don't want sympathy or pity, but I don't want to be seen as rude or cold either.

What complicates matters and makes a simple "I'm sorry I'm hard of hearing" difficult to say is that in most cases people don't get the fact that I can "hear" them when I'm looking at them but suddenly not when we are not facing each other.

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    For clarification, is there a reason that "I'm sorry, I'm hard of hearing. Would you mind repeating?/Could we take the conversation elsewhere?" fails to be diplomatic or fails to prevent eliciting pity? – called2voyage Nov 7 '17 at 19:14
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    @called2voyage yes, because people don't believe me. Most often, people know me but don't know I'm hearing impaired. Worse, since it often happens after a person has been conversing with me, I am often not believed. – user4548 Nov 7 '17 at 19:36
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What complicates matters and makes a simple "I'm sorry I'm hard of hearing" difficult to say is that in most cases people don't get the fact that I can "hear" them when I'm looking at them but suddenly not when we are not facing each other.

That's correct. So you'll have to tell them something more. I've had several co-workers with hearing difficulties. One of them, just like you, isn't wearing a hearing aid but can mask the hearing problem quite easily. So I never knew he's completely deaf on one side until that one time he I was on his wrong side. Then, he explained this to me once in detail:

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ignore you but I'm hard of hearing. You might not have noticed before because I can understand you as long as you look at me, or if I'm on your right side, but if we're not facing each other or switched around I can't follow the conversation. Could you please look at me while you're talking, or draw my attention so we can switch to the correct places?

His statement included:

  • Something like 'I'm sorry' or 'Excuse me', just the basic politeness stuff. Not to apologize for this problem, but to give me some reassurance that he was not doing the ignoring intentionally.
  • Statement of the problem: hard of hearing, in his right ear.
  • Big point: a solution for the problem, such as being able to see the face of the speaker and read their lips will help follow the conversation/ the position of the good ear.

I can't speak for other people with regards to the rude/cold/pity/sympathy feelings because this is highly dependent on the person you're dealing with. But, personally, if you'll make a statement that includes these points, I won't find you rude or cold because you just explained there's a legitimate reason you could hear me at that time but not now. And I won't pity you either because you've just shown that it's easily remedied and doesn't have to be a big problem. You will get some sympathy from me though because sympathy also means 'understanding between people'. And you will need some understanding of your problem and its solution to get me to actually do what is required for the solution.

Of course, with regard to my co-worker, I often forget which ear is his good ear. But I know that if he seems to ignore me, I'm on the bad side and should switch places, or find some other way to draw his attention. A tap on his shoulder works fine, if you're not bothered by that, you can offer that as a solution to these people as well.

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    Plus one for the bold line. I hate when people say they have trouble hearing and so they can't understand me. Give me a solution so I can communicate with you! – Kat Nov 7 '17 at 22:25
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I had a manager once who had either no or very little hearing in one ear. I learned of the problem when we were both in a noisy conference room (pre-meeting) trying to have a conversation. At one point he cupped his hand behind one ear to try to cut out background noise, and soon after he asked if we could step outside. When we did, he told me about the problem and that background noise made it even worse. I paid attention to which side of him I was on after that.

Once I was "in the know" I noticed the other people who also were, who did the same things. If a room was getting too noisy, chances were good that any one of us would try to quiet it down. (I hear fine but hate noise, so I was already onboard with this.) Sometimes he'd say something like "sorry, I didn't catch that -- could you repeat that?", the person would, and things would carry on. By saying "sorry" even if it's not really his fault or something he can control, he deflected any negative feelings that people would have felt otherwise. (I've had similar experiences with "sorry, I didn't see you" when someone was trying to get my attention. People seem to understand.)

What I saw from him aligned pretty well with how I handle my own visual disability in group settings where it matters. Either of us might sometimes ask "could I have that seat? It'll be easier for me to {see, hear} the presentation from there", or ask "can you repeat that / could you zoom that?". Most of the time it's not necessary to actually say "I have a disability", and therefore there's no natural opportunity for people to believe or disbelieve. Focus on the thing you need -- for something to be repeated, to adjust the speaker's mic, to cut down the side conversations, a better seat -- and not exactly why you need it. Save the explanation for cases where it's needed or for people you work with a lot (so sharing it can fend off future problems).

There's not a lot you can do about people you never heard (or in my case saw) who don't get your attention and just sulk away offended instead. You can't address what you can't perceive. For me and my former manager, a combination of effectively dealing with problems when they come up and getting to know people (so more people know about the limitation) has been enough to alleviate any concerns over perceptions of rudeness.

  • This doesn't seem to address the problem of the listener taking offense to not being heard. – called2voyage Nov 7 '17 at 20:07
  • @called2voyage the approach I described makes it largely a non-issue, but I added some stuff to make that clearer. – Monica Cellio Nov 7 '17 at 20:41
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    @called2voyage if you don't say "I have a disability" they're not going to tell you that they don't believe you... because you're just saying that you didn't hear them... Why would someone say "I don't believe you" if you say, "I didn't catch that, could you repeat it"? – Catija Nov 7 '17 at 20:45
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    @called2voyage The OP says that if they're looking "right at them", they generally don't have a problem hearing them? Heck, I don't have a hearing impairment and I often still have to ask people to repeat stuff just because my brain sometimes fails to keep up with the conversation... "hey, I missed that because I was thinking about what you just said, could you repeat that?" – Catija Nov 7 '17 at 20:51
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    @Catija That is exactly my point. How do you deal with people who get offended when that happens? – called2voyage Nov 7 '17 at 20:52
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The best way to make it clear to someone you've just met that you have a hearing impairment, is to explain this to them right after you've spoken for the first time. But only if it's someone you're guaranteed to be seeing again in the near future. There's no need to point it out to a stranger (at least, not in great detail) unless a situation really demands it. When a new friend, colleague, etc. wants to introduce themselves, they have to project themselves clearly, so they're going to be facing you and making direct eye contact with you when this happens. You shouldn't have a problem explaining your hearing impairment to people you already know.

I have Asperger's, but I never tell anybody that I have it unless I really need to. For instance, I let work know that I have autism because it can affect my learning. I never bothered telling my friends that I'm autistic until a lot later, because we get along just fine regardless of my autism and we haven't repeatedly run into situations where I've had to explain why I may have misunderstood/reacted differently to certain things than most people. There have been one-off situations where I've had to apologise for misunderstanding or reacting inappropriately, and proceeded to reveal the fact that I have autism. These days, though, it's not usually a barrier so there's no need for me to bring it up. I've never had to tell a stranger that I'm autistic.

So, to summarise - the best way to respond to a stranger who you've accidentally ignored is simply to apologise and explain your impairment as concisely as possible:

"I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to ignore you. I just have hearing problems which can't be solved with a hearing aid."

The best way to respond to a new friend, colleague, etc. who you've just met is to explain the issue in more detail, and make it clear what's required of them:

"Oh, just so you know, I have a hearing impairment, which unfortunately can't be fixed with a hearing aid. If someone isn't facing me, I'm not able to lip-read, so I can't hear them. Likewise, if someone is behind me, or on my bad side, I'm not able to hear them at all. So if you don't mind, can you make sure to always approach me from the front if you want to start a conversation with me?"

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I've been on the other end of this situation with one of my co-workers. The second or third time we spoke, I was trying to get her attention and she seemed to be ignoring me. Once she realized, she said "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm almost completely deaf, but I'm very good at reading lips." I was both disarmed and a bit impressed, because I struggle to read lips myself. She continued, "Please don't think I'm ignoring you if I don't answer. I have to be looking at you to 'hear' you. Just wave to get my attention if you need anything."

Long and short, tell them you have to read lips to understand what they're saying. Explain that you're near deaf and can't make out words, and that you hear with your eyes. It's worked on me the few times I've met someone in that situation.

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Try telling people you are hard of hearing when you first meet them. Explain that when you can see someone's mouth moving it helps you decipher the sounds that are hard to hear but when you don't see a person's mouth it makes it much harder to understand or even know that someone is talking to you.

This way, when you remind them later, it does not seem like your just making up an excusing for ignoring them.

If people still refuse to believe you, go to a doctor and have your hearing tested. print out the result and carry it with you. The next time someone makes a big deal about you "ignoring them" pull out your result and show it to them. Just say something like this:

Actually I just had my hearing tested the other day. I think I still have the results on me. . . ah, here it is. Here take a look, I only have x% the hearing ability of someone with healthy ears/nerves/hear"

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    This seems way more trouble than it is worth, honestly. It is hard to bring up to every person you meet, especially if you can interact just fine in most situations. Also, carrying proof with you everywhere you go is troublesome and almost passive aggressive, I think. – user4788 Nov 8 '17 at 2:13
  • It's not really anyone's business, and when I've done that PEOPLE... START... TO... TALK... LIKE... THIS... Which is embarrassing and unpleasant – user4548 Nov 8 '17 at 18:39

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