When a teen comes into the department with a guide dog or using a walking cane, or wheeling himself in on a wheelchair, we get a pretty clear first impression of that patron’s potential needs and challenges. But what about when it isn’t so obvious? For the deaf or hard of hearing teen, having their needs met in the library can be a struggle, simply because their needs aren’t initially obvious to us.
According to the NIDCD, 2-3 of every 1,000 children are born deaf or hard of hearing. With statistics like those it is pretty much a guarantee that each of us serves deaf or hard of hearing teens who need us to be aware of the challenges they encounter in the “hearing culture”. These barriers deal mainly with communication, but we also need to be aware of what library materials we may want to introduce these teens to, and how we can improve our programming to be more inclusive.
First remember, teens are teens are teens…they aren’t going to act like adults, regardless of who they are and what challenges they may face. Adults who are deaf or hard of hearing have had practice asserting themselves and navigating throughout the hearing community, and even then sometimes they don’t want to share unless absolutely necessary, ’cause trust me it takes serious work. As a professional librarian with a bilateral moderate-to-severe hearing loss, it is a daily struggle to hear in the world of “Shhhh….” Plus, sorry to say it folks, the hearing community doesn’t always make things easy to receive specialized services. When I attended college (as an older adult) I had to jump through some serious hoops to receive specialized services for my auditory needs. And even then, many professors had no interest in working with me consistently. Had I been a young adult I just wouldn’t have even bothered in the first place. Teens are still figuring themselves out and most of the time they won’t approach us unless they are already comfortable with us, so we need to initiate conversation to seek out their needs.
So, how to communicate with deaf teens:
Gesture. Now, I know what you might be thinking, “Hey, I don’t know any ASL (American Sign Language) beyond what we do in baby time class,” although that is awesome if you do. Trust me, if your teen patron can see you he can understand your physical gestures, as goofy as they may seem to you (and I have used a lot of goofy ways to communicate, but they always seem to work). One of my library “regulars” is a family of 13–and most of the members of the family are either deaf or hard of hearing; I have learned a lot of ways to communicate with them over the last few years, and while sometimes I amuse the kids and teens we are always able to figure each other out.
Writing. Bust out your cell phone or the iPad if you have one handy to have some quick back and forth communication via messenger or using voice to text apps such as Dragon Dictation (free!). If you don’t have access to that technology, grab a pen and paper and start writing; it may sound simple, but I’ve seen library staff not offer this simply because it takes time or they find it intimidating.
Computer. If your library has computers then most likely you also have software on staff computers to access patron computer use for reservations, finding availability, etc. You may find that you can also use this software to exchange messaging with patrons using the computers. For example, at the start of Summer Reading Club a few years ago I used our computer’s messaging system to give one of our deaf teen patrons the “low-down” on the awesome reading incentives he could earn for participating. He totally signed up.
Communicating with hard-of-hearing teens is just as important to consider, because it is easy to make assumptions and fall into routine “hearing” communication habits.
Things to know:
Hearing aids aren’t like glasses; they don’t necessarily bring a person’s hearing to “20/20.” Hearing aids amplify, they don’t correct. A teen with a hearing aid may still struggle to hear you.
Don’t assume that a teen who talks clearly can hear clearly. Hearing loss and deafness don’t always develop early in life, so some teens who developed their hearing loss later in life still heard clearly enough as a young child to develop their spoken language.
If your teen patron is hard of hearing don’t talk into his or her ear. Seems strange, right? But folks who have a hearing loss need to see your mouth and eyes when you talk. Reading lips isn’t as common as one might think, but there is an element of hearing that requires visual clues from the talker’s mouth as well as their facial gestures. Most often it is a combination of hearing and lip reading that allows hard of hearing folks to navigate communication. Hard of hearing and deaf teens are still learning how to read lip and facial expressions, so they need us to clearly enunciate, and they need to see our lips (no covering your mouth!). Also, digital hearing aids “focus” at sounds in front of the wearer in order to block out background sounds, so talking next to, or behind, the wearer just isn’t going to work.
Take her somewhere quieter if the conversation you are sharing is going to take some time, since background noise is a huge issue for hard of hearing folks. The stacks are the best, especially since you’re probably talking books anyway.
Don’t shout or talk loudly. Seriously. It isn’t the volume. If your teen patron is having a hard time understanding you just change the words you are using. Hearing loss isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Just maintain eye contact and try shorter sentences.
What about special materials?
Be aware of your fiction and non-fiction collection on deaf culture and sign language, as well as what support services are available in the community your library serves. Have this available to print out, or as an online pathfinder. (Check out these YA fiction suggestions at The Hub!)
Some deaf and hard of hearing students struggle with literacy. Know your audio and print pairs. Hard of hearing teens who have enough hearing capacity to listen to a book on audio will benefit from being able to focus on the reading material while listening to the sounds of the words, and the combo emphasizes comprehension. Also, know your Hi-Lo collection, which are YA books with lower reading levels; common publishers are Orca and Saddleback.
Mangas and Graphic Novels–fiction and non-fiction–rock. Deaf and hard of hearing teens are usually visual learners, so these books are perfect. Also, be familiar with any YA or juvenile books with illustrations.
Signs. If teens have to ask you repeatedly where something is, or how something works (such as reserving a computer), then you are probably losing an opportunity to serve your deaf and hard-of-hearing teens as well.
Programming for your teens:
Showing a movie? Turn on the Closed Caption. It’s easy-peasy: on the main menu of the movie there should be a “language” option; open that up and choose your captioning.
Reserve some chairs in the front of the room for those teens who need to be closer to the speaker in order to hear and see what is being shared.
Use the microphone. I’m never comfortable using the mic, and would much rather use my speaking voice (I can seriously project), but a mic is able to amplify my voice in stereo, something my voice simply can’t do (especially if I’m pacing the stage).
Bring in the visuals. Teens love when I have included visuals with my programs, regardless of their hearing status. Photos, drawings, printed out step-by-step instructions, it’s all good stuff.
Share print resources. If you have a program where you will be sharing info, or reading from a script, have copies available for teens who might need use of it. This means more prep on your end, but once you have it you can share it and use it again.
Creating an environment for deaf and hard of hearing teens takes awareness and communication, but I think that goes for serving any teen, regardless of particular needs.