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My heart was pounding, my stomach was churning. I was glancing at my phone every few seconds, worried I will miss the call.
For people with hearing loss, phone calls can be challenging. It can be embarrassing and tiring to keep asking people to repeat themselves. With phone calls, you can’t control the sound conditions on the other end of the line, and this can cause anxiety. I usually try to avoid phone calls and prefer to virtually communicate via video call or instant messaging.
Living with single-sided deafness, I am fortunate to have functional hearing in my right ear. Though, unless there are good communication conditions on both ends of the call, I find listening to and trying to understand phone calls tiring and frustrating. Any extra sound in addition to the dialogue (background noise from the TV or other people speaking, phone line interference, air conditioning fans etc.) overwhelms my brain and I cannot process the dialogue. During a phone call, there is no communication-support through visual cues or facial expressions. In Spain where I live, many assume my lack of understanding is primarily a language issue. Although I’m far from fluent in Spanish, the first step to understanding dialogue is hearing it in the first place.
After experiencing some mild COVID-19 symptoms, my boyfriend encouraged me to inform my doctor. Due to the pandemic, all appointments are currently being conducted via telephone. We managed to navigate through the initial call together, with the doctor on speakerphone. I was told to wait for a follow-up call, the next day.
The phone screen lit up and my mobile started to ring. I took a deep breath and answered. My doctor began to speak in a very loud voice and asked if I could hear her. The audio was unclear, and I imagined the echoes of her voice bouncing around the hard walls of her consultation room.
Roaring cars outside her window. The tapping of her fingernails on her computer keyboard as she typed with force and purpose. A screeching sound, unknown source.
Her voice became louder and more distorted amongst the background noise. I was finding it difficult to concentrate on what she was saying, and deciphering her speech became a near-impossible task. When I tried to clarify the key points, she spoke over the top of me, which meant the phone call kept going on and on.
A few hours later, my phone started to vibrate. I wasn’t expecting another call. A spark of panic. My boyfriend was talking in the main room on a work video call, so I grabbed my phone and ran to the hallway, the quietest place in the apartment.
I asked the caller to wait a minute. I told her that I can’t hear well. She was already speaking rapidly at me. I sat on the floor in the hallway, crouched down, with my ear pressed firmly against my phone. It was a receptionist at the doctor’s clinic. I understood that she was telling me I had an appointment for the following day. She concluded every sentence hurriedly with, “OK?” After some repetition from both of us, I understood the appointment time.
I then asked, for clarification, who the appointment would be with, “A doctor or nurse?” I heard her response as, “TAYTHEY AIRAY.” Hmm, this wasn’t a Spanish word I was familiar with.
Just as I thought she might say goodbye, I hastily asked again for clarification as to who my consultation would be with, the doctor or a nurse. Before I had finished speaking my query, she repeated, “It’s TAYTHEY AIRAY.” “Ok,” I replied. I still had no idea what she meant. Her tone suggested my question wasn’t a valid one.
I went in for the third time, hopeful that she would give more information or reiterate what she was saying. “It’s TAYTHEY AIRAY,” she responded. She seemed agitated. Her perplexed tone suggested confusion as to why I kept asking her the same question when the answer was obvious.
I had to admit defeat. I was quite sure I had the right appointment time, so repeated back to her, “TAYTHEY AIRAY.” “Exactly!” she responded, sounding relieved. She concluded with, “OK?” I scribbled TAYTHEY AIRAY on a piece of paper and responded, “OK.”
I began to put my detective skills to the test by typing this new phrase into Google. I scanned the top three results which were as follows:
(1) Scotland’s Border Inspection Post/Animal Receiving Centre
(2) Newly Launched Flight from Qatar Airways to Cambodia
(3) Words That Rhyme with Straightaway
Perhaps I needed to change tack.
I sat looking at the words and read them out loud a few times. I noticed the last part of the word sounded like the letter ‘r’ in Spanish. Perhaps this new phrase was an acronym. I started to deconstruct the phrase:
TAY = t
THAY = c
AIRAY = r
I typed ‘TCR COVID’ into the search bar. I didn’t need to press ‘enter’ to complete my query. TCR was autocorrected to PCR and the drop-down list of PCR test-themed search suggestions gave me my answer. Oh, I had been scheduled for a COVID-19 test!
I talked to my boyfriend about the phone call with the receptionist. The acronym PCR must be in such common usage at the moment, it hadn’t occurred to her that I wouldn’t be familiar with this term. My question hadn’t made sense to her.
On reflection, I realised that if some simple strategies had been employed to help with communication, my telephone exchanges would have have been more positive and productive.
When talking on the phone to someone with hearing loss, the following tips can help aid communication:
- Find a quiet place to call from and try to limit background noise
- Speak clearly at a natural speed and volume—shouting isn’t helpful and causes speech to sound distorted
- Be cautious not to speak over each other—overlapping voices make speech unintelligible
- Emphasise key points, especially if important information is being conveyed—unnecessary use of extra words can confuse the listener
- Arrange a mutually convenient time to call and try to be on time—people with hearing loss may need to prepare before the call, e.g. ensuring they have access to a quiet place
- Rephrase rather than repeat
- Be patient
Phone calls can be stressful for people with hearing loss, but some basic awareness of effective communication skills can really help aid communication.