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Listening Means More than Hearing Clearly

It is said, “when you have a question, ask an expert.” And that’s just what I do when I want to know how to design tours to accommodate people who are deaf or hard of hearing. So let me introduce you to two experts — in matters both of museums and accommodations — and let them help you improve tours for everyone, including deaf or hard-of-hearing visitors.

These two experts have a lot in common, but they are also very different people. First, let me introduce Jane Glaser. Jane has worked in museums for 32 years, as director of a children’s museum and planetarium, director of the Smithsonian’s Office of Museum Programs, and as author of a soon-to-be-published book on museum careers. She has no shortage of energy and travels widely to visit and work with museums around the world.

About 12 years ago, Jane began to lose her hearing. For the first five years her loss progressed slowly; then her hearing level dropped suddenly and plateaued. It’s been at a fairly consistent level ever since. Even though Jane wears two hearing aids, amplification does not help her much. Jane’s particular type of hearing impairment keeps her from being able to discriminate words (i.e., being able to understand what she hears). That means that amplification only makes the indistinguishable sounds louder— it does not clear up the meaning of the sounds.

Jane relies on speech and speechreading for communication. She’s learned a few signs, here and there, but depends primarily on her residual hearing, her speechreading skills, and an occasional written note to gather information. Jane, of course, loves to go to museums of any kind, but, she finds herself staying away from tours these days because docents usually don’t know how to communicate with her effectively.

Deb Sonnenstrahl is also a museum professional. She is the chair of the Art Department of Gallaudet University, where she has taught for 30 years. Deb has a Ph.D. in the education of deaf students, with a certification in museum studies. She has conducted some of the best and most animated tours ever of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, drawing in fascinated hearing visitors to her groups of deaf students as she proceeds through the galleries and garden. As art historian, advocate for deaf artists, and advocate for museum access. Deb’s a triple dynamo expert for art museums in particular.

Deb was born deaf. She hated museums as a child because she saw them as beautiful surroundings filled with moving mouths that made no sense. Her main mode of communication today is sign language; however, her speechreading skills are exceptional, making her most comfortable in signed tours but able to follow a lot of the information in well-presented spoken ones.

As you can see, these two women share in common: 1 ) a tremendous amount of museum expertise; 2) a great love for museums and what they do; and, 3) very little usable hearing for aurally taking in museum tour information. But their similarities do not mean that the accommodations they need on a tour are always the same — and these two women represent some of the diversity you will find when you have people who are deaf or hard of hearing in your tour groups. Let’s see what works for each of these women and others like them.

For people who are hard of hearing, Jane recommends, first and foremost, that you slow down your speech slightly and (PLEASE) don’t shout. Yelling doesn’t help at all (in fact, it often further distorts your speech and makes discriminating words even more difficult), but speaking a little more slowly and distinctly (without exaggerating) is a very effective speechreading aid. Jane has a pet peeve with beards and mustaches and stiff upper lips — enemies all to speechreading. So trimming back your facial hair and animating your mouth movements (and offering some accompanying body language) will definitely improve your rapport with her.

Of course, clear speech or not, speechreading can only be accomplished when people can see you. So, maintaining eye contact with people who are hard of hearing is essential. Always face those group members, keep them facing you, and allow people to stop walking and to regain a good viewing position at each new object before you start talking again.

Jane said she always prefers to stand right near the docent; however, some people may be less assertive and depend on you to choose a highly visible position at each stop. Jane also suggests that you verbally indicate upcoming subject and location transitions — that is, tell people when you are about to change topics or to physically move on to the next object. That important little tip lets people: 1) create a context for your presentation materials (and enable them to fill in words they may not be able to catch through speechreading), and 2) anticipate your movements. The latter assistance makes them more comfortable knowing that when you turn to leave, you’ve stopped talking and they’re not missing anything.

Finally, while Jane hasn’t yet found an assistive listening system that benefits her on tours, she said that many people can effectively use individual FM or induction loop systems. She strongly recommends that docents become familiar with the systems and how they work so that if their museums offer them, or if people bring their own equipment, the docents can use them correctly and for their best purpose.

Since most museums don’t have interpreters on their staffs, when Deb arrives at your museum, she most likely will have called ahead to arrange for a sign language interpreter to accompany her on the tour. However, Deb said that if a deaf person inquires when already at the museum about joining a tour, the question from you should be, “Would you like to join my tour now, or would you prefer to return for tour when we can provide an interpreter?” This question gives the deaf individual the option to take that day’s tour with direct docent assistance or to come back when an interpreter can assist both the visitor and the decent.

If the choice is to stay for the day’s tour, much of the assistance you’ll provide will follow Jane’s recommendations. However, if you lead the later tour with the interpreter, you’ll also need to remember a few of Deb’s tips.

The most important request that Deb makes is to treat her as a capable, intelligent adult. Don’t make decisions for her and, please, don’t pity her. She emphatically asks also that you speak to her, not the interpreter. The interpreter serves as a microphone for you and her – – talk through the interpreter to Deb with the phrase being “what do you think” rather than to the interpreter with the phrase shifting to “what does she think.” And, while you will hear the interpreter’s voice answering the questions, remember that the words are Deb’s and the answer must be to her not to the interpreter.

Deb completely agrees with Jane about walking and talking and turning your back to the audience (or turning theirs to you) — they don’t work for people who are deaf with interpreter service either. In addition, Deb asks that you give time for the interpreter to position herself before you start speaking. If you are talking about a small object or case, you can stand on one side of the object while the interpreter stands on the other side. If it is a large object that you are presenting, let the interpreter stand near the object and then you stand next to the interpreter. That way the deaf individual can see you, the interpreter, and the object in sweep of the eyes. But no one can see all of it at once, so allow a little time after you’ve finished talking for people to look at the object. And do stay near the object — it is difficult for visitors to ferret out the details pointed out three minutes ago that are “over there” but nowhere specific.

Good lighting (to facilitate reading the interpreter’s signs as well as to aid speechreading) is often hard to come by in museums, but it is an invaluable commodity for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Crowds and visual distractions, on the other hand, are often hard to eliminate in museums, but present more than a passing annoyance for people with hearing losses — they draw essential attention away from the speaker. Deb’s recommendation to you is to avoid talking in the middle of a space where crowd movement is heaviest; instead, try to find lighter, quieter spots against walls or near cases where people can better concentrate on your presentation.

Both Jane and Deb told me that written support materials are extremely helpful for understanding tours. Whether the materials are verbatim scripts, outline notes, or even key words with brief explanations of their importance in the tour, printed information will clarify proper nouns, scientific and foreign names, and technical terms that are difficult to speechread or catch in rapid fingerspelling. You can also point out appropriate labels to reinforce information at particular cases or works of art.

Now I know what you are thinking – these suggestions would help all of our visitors. Who wouldn’t benefit from more eye contact, less rapid-fire speech, more time to look at objects, and more support materials to understand complex concepts? Well? Maybe these recommendations should be followed for all of your tours. Perhaps by assuming that everyone might need some assistance hearing you (whether they gather your information aurally or visually), you can help them all to better listen to you and understand what you have to share.

And, if you aren’t sure how best to accommodate people’s needs to listen, ask the experts. If you don’t know Jane and Deb, ask those with the most pertinent expertise: the- people on you tour who wear hearing aids or who use sign language or who stand closest to you and carefully study your face. They’ll tell you how to best accommodate them on your specific tour. And, they’ll show you how to assist the rest of your audience while you are at it.

Janice Majewski is Accessibility Coordinator for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Located in the Office of the Assistant Provost for the Arts and Humanities, Ms. Majewsski is responsible for coordinating the efforts of all of the museums, the National Zoo, and Smithsonian’s research facilities to become more accessible to staff and visitors with disabilities. In addition to her 18 years at the Smithsonian, Ms. Majewski has been a teacher of children with hearing impairments. Her article, “Blind People Can See Your Collection,” appeared in the very first issue of The Docent Educator.

Majewski, Janice. “Listening Means More than Hearing Clearly,” The Docent Educator 5.3 (Spring 1996): 10-12.


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