‘What did you say?’ Tackling hearing loss during the holidays

Hearing Loss

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Editor’s note: Kim Kurz interview was conducted with the help of translator Jenna Stein.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Thanksgiving is just two days away, which means the holiday season is officially here. But even as friends and family gather around the table, some folks can feel left out — even if they’re sitting right next to you.

Census data shows that at least 40,000 people in the Rochester area are deaf or hard of hearing. That’s the highest per capita population in the country, according to RIT.

But even in Rochester, deaf and hard of hearing people often find themselves outnumbered at the dinner table. It happens so much, there’s even a term for it: Dinner Table Syndrome.

“Dinner table syndrome is where you have a hearing family all together with one deaf person,” explained Kim Kurz.  “That deaf individual is left out because everyone is using spoken word, and they are just there with their food.”

Kurz is the interim director of the National Technical Institute of the Deaf’s Sign Language Assessment and Resource Center. Like her students, she is deaf. 

“When I was a little girl, I was honestly doing a lot of reading when my family was together,” Kurz signed. “Thanks to that, I’m now literate. And at that time, we didn’t have much technology, I was using physical books.”

Kurz said that what’s helped her the most in recent years is live captioning apps. She uses Ava, which transcribes in real time what people say. It also lets a user type words in to be read aloud by the app.

“It’s amazing, honestly, it’s great. I wish I had that when I was a little girl,” Kurz signed. “Sometimes I can sit, my family’s talking, and I’m just reading along. I learned so much more about my family members than I had ever known. I had no idea until I was able to find an app like this.”

For folks who can hear, but have any level of hearing loss, family gatherings can also be challenging.

“Hearing loss can be from a number of different things, different medications, neurotoxicity, sometimes, the aging process,” Dr. Kaitlyn Kelly said.

Dr. Kelly is an audiologist at HearUSA in Webster. Among other things, she fits people with hearing aids. An occasional hearing-aid-user herself, Dr. Kelly is the first to say how these tiny pieces of tech can make a world of a difference. 

But while they’ve come a long way, hearing aids still don’t give you the equivalent of 20-20 vision.

“There’s no way to stop hearing loss,” Dr. Kelly said. “Even with hearing aids, you cannot hear the same way you did when you were twelve.” 

Whether a loved one is 15 or 85, Dr. Kelly said there are several communication strategies that can help them hear better. One big one: eye contact.

 “Simply looking at someone, being seen, is huge,” she said. “We get a lot of information from facial expressions. So just having eye contact, we get a lot of information that way […] Not talking to someone and then walking away into a different room — things like that can really help.” 

Other tips from organizations like Deaf LEAD include turning up the lights and turning down the music. Better lighting — and moving centerpieces to clear up everyone’s line of sight — can help deaf and hard of hearing folks keep up with what’s going on. 

If it’s possible, Kurz said the best tool for a big gathering is to hire an interpreter. This isn’t the same thing as having a family member who knows ASL help out.

“Something like a wedding or a family reunion that’s a big family event, I would recommend bringing in a sign language interpreter,” she signed. “Have someone there who can be along with the deaf member and just help with the communication.” 

Both Kurz and Dr. Kelly said that struggling to hear — or not being able to hear at all — can be isolation, especially during the holidays. Having tools like AVA and family members who accommodate can make a world of a difference. 

“During the holidays it should be about family, friends, loved ones, and hearing loss makes it really difficult,” Dr. Kelly said. “There’s a lot of research that’s been done with hearing loss and depression, social isolation, anxiety — all of these things. Because if you’re not able to understand what’s going on at the family gathering, you don’t want to go.”