Read My Lips


And Eyes and Body

“Gael, did you know Digby has fleas?”

“Oh, what a shame.”

My friend Murray turned back to me. “What’s a shame?”

“That the dog has fleas.”

“I asked if you would like a Diet Pepsi.”

This is the story of my life: If I can’t see your face, I can’t understand you. I might hear you MAKING words; I just wouldn’t catch them. But look me in the eye and I’m with you all the way.

My sensorineural hearing loss was diagnosed at age three and is now, at age 46, severe to profound. I hear nothing without my hearing aids — tiny, high-tech, amplifying marvels that allow me to hear better than ever before. But, however wonderful, they don’t always discriminate between the high-frequency consonants like “t” and “d,” and the sibilant “s” and “f.” Assistive technology is only one tool I use, albeit the major one, in this world of constant information and noise.

Out of necessity, I learned from an early age to “read” people through their physical clues. While listening, I also asses their:

– lips — forming consonants or vowels?
– eyes — narrowed? wide?
– teeth — together? apart?
– facial expressions — stern? calm? eyebrows up or down?
– body language — relaxed? hands on hips? arms folded?
– gestures — hands laced or stabbing the air?
– tone of voice — sharp? giggly?

It’s a myth that one of our five senses becomes stronger to compensate for a weaker one, but we do learn to USE another sense BETTER. I need to depend more on my sight, which works as a team with my residual hearing, like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, to decipher visible and verbal messages which usually act in sync. One does not normally frown when professing love, or laugh when expressing grief. Anger has tense facial muscles and clenched fists. Happiness is smiles and sparkling eyes.

The onset of hearing loss has an enormous impact on relationships. All of a sudden, a husband’s mumbling is a serious problem and young grandchildren are unintelligible. Bank tellers refuse to look up and busy people speak too quickly. The rapid-fire conversation of family gatherings and business meetings spins out of control. Playing cards becomes an embarrassment rather than a joy. And everyone, even those closest to you, continually forget your new needs because — hey! You still LOOK the same! (Growing up with hearing loss gave me an
advantage. I got to choose my husband for his deep, slow voice, and I’m training our four-year-old to face me and speak clearly.)

Speechreading is about human interaction. People with acquired hearing loss, who either have partial hearing or are deafened (total hearing loss), must develop new ways of receiving information. Their family, friends and associates must find new ways of delivering it. Speechreading is just one of several strategies that work together to help bridge the gap when hearing fades. Learning how to do it well does take effort, especially for someone also dealing with the emotional trauma that can accompany hearing difficulties, but the payoffs are huge.

Expectations about speechreading must be realistic. Here’s another myth debunked — it’s almost impossible to decipher entire conversations 50 feet off. Even 10 feet away is tough for me; I need a hint or two, like subject matter and perhaps a little sound. Approximately only 50 per cent of speech is visible on the lips, but a good speechreader “gets” the other 50 per cent from other sources (those eyes, body and sound!).
Look in a mirror and mouth the word “cake.” Tough, huh? It could also be take, lake, gig, light, because all the action takes place behind the lips, at the roof of the mouth and at the back of the throat. And you KNOW the word; if someone mouthed it to you out of the blue, you wouldn’t have a clue. Words that look the same on the lips, like mat and pat, are called homophenes. How do we distinguish between “p,” “b” and “m,” or “f” and “v,” and many other speech combinations? By context — keeping up on the subject matter is crucial to comprehension. For example, if you are discussing your golf game with a friend, chances are “You have a great butt!” is actually “You had a great putt!”

The first step to good speechreading is to be open about your hearing loss and let people know what you need. Otherwise, it’s impossible when the person has their face in a shadow or their hand in their mouth or, worst crime of all, is calling you from another room. When I tell people I’m hard of hearing, many ask if I read lips, and then test me with contorted variations of “What! Am! I! Saying!” (Mind you, this isn’t quite as tiresome as the “witty” response when I ask some people to speak up: “Pardon?” I’m Canadian — after hearing this four million times, I still laugh politely.)

Here are a few speechreading guidelines:
– Concentrate on the speaker.
– Try to eliminate unnecessary background noise.
– Focus on the message and key phrases, rather than trying to catch every word.
– Clarify and verify what the speaker is saying.
– Take clues from a person’s facial expressions and body language.
– Make sure the light is on the speaker’s face.
– Don’t bluff! Instead, put your energy into understanding and communicating.
– Ask for what you need — for example, one person speaking at a time, or louder/slower speech.
– Relax as much as possible and keep your eyes well rested.

Speechreading classes are an important step for a person with hearing loss. Qualified instructors will demonstrate various speech movements of consonants, vowels and blends, how to use context, common phrases, and strategies for real-life situations such as meetings, restaurants and travelling. (Believe me, classes are much more fun than they sound!)

Besides the skillsets learned, participants often draw great comfort and inspiration from discussions with others facing similar challenges. Courses are offered by many provincial hearing agencies and by speechreading instructors trained by the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (CHHA). Other possible sources, depending on the location, are community centres, hospitals and night-school courses.

For those who prefer to learn in privacy or who don’t have access to classes locally, speechreading manuals and other resources are
available from CHHA and provincial hearing agencies. CHHA has produced a wonderful video called “Sound Ideas” that teaches the
basics of speechreading and other important coping strategies.

Like any “language,” speechreading takes practice, and the most simple way is be aware that you’re doing it! Try out these practice ideas:

– When reading bedtime stories to your children or grandchildren, have them mouth the story back to you. With their simple phrasing and rhythms, children’s early stories and nursery rhymes are excellent practice tools.

– Put the TV on mute and “read” the nightly news, where the topic of the news item is usually pictured in the upper corner of the screen.

– Practise with a friend.

– Be creative; try libraries and Internet websites for ideas.

Learning to cope with hearing loss is not always easy. Starting over to communicate in different ways takes energy and hard work. But the results are worth it: continuing the activities, work and people that make our lives meaningful. For many people, speechreading and other communication skills can make the difference between withdrawing from life or enjoying it.

For a person with hearing loss, one of the hardest things to admit is that we’ve lost the thread of a conversation. Try doing what I do: Pound the table and ask, “What the hell are we talking about now!?” Then get back in the conversation!

(Gael Hannan is a Toronto speechreading instructor and president of the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (CHHA). Contact her at (416) 237-1274 (voice) or fax: (416) 239-0217. For more information on CHHA and its speechreading resources, contact the national office at 1-800-263-8068.)


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