Delivering a conference paper: supporting your colleagues with hearing impairments, or, there’s no point speaking if no one can hear.

“Approximately 9 million people in the UK have a hearing loss. This is approximately 19% of the total population or 1 in every 7 persons. Hearing loss increases sharply with age. About one third of the population aged between 60-70 years and three quarters of the population aged over seventy years have a hearing loss.”  Deafness – UK Statistics and Facts

For some reason, deafness is the neglected disability in the classroom and in conferences. Even though it is probably the commonest disability–and the one that is coming to most of you one day–it is routinely dismissed as a minor problem. Before I begin I want to emphasise that even though my own mother is deaf, and it’s her progressive hearing impairment I have inherited, I was every bit as blasé until it came to me.

NB: if you are Deaf or Hearing impaired and wish me to edit, clarify, add to the following please email me. This is a work in progress.

Edit: My attention has been brought to his fantastic post from Sarah Sparks about using a Cochlear Implant.


There are a number of key things to understand before I start.

  • Some people are born with hearing impairments, others gradually lose their hearing. The former if they are able/choose to use hearing aids, are likely to have very good mechanisms for dealing, and very high functioning hearing aids. The latter may be in the process of getting used to hearing aids which do strange things to sound; or may be waiting for upgrades as their hearing is changing. Both groups will have made choices about what they want to be able to hear and will have made some sacrifices. Hearing aids are, in their efficacy, less like spectacles than they are like a walking stick. Sarah Parker in the post I have linked to, describes them as prosthetics and that seems about right to me.
  • Different people have different impairment: older people tend to have high frequency deafness. I have low frequency deafness. It’s perfectly possible to have very acute hearing in one range and dreadful hearing in another.
  • Not all hearing is about volume: some hearing impairments are about interference (tinnitus) or processing disorders (what was that consonant you just made? do you know you sound like a really lovely babbling brook but I have no clue what you just said to me?).
  • Add any foreign accent and not only is hearing harder, but so is lip reading: I once had a student from country x who was used to lip reading her own country people speaking English; but in her class, the tutor was from a different country and her class mates were from around ten other countries and her well practiced lip reading just didn’t work.


  1. If you are organising a conference, make sure there are microphones in every single room. Avoid rooms with very high ceilings or glass on two sides.
    • Hearing aids are electronic devices that actually work better on electronic sound. No loud voice is as clear to someone with hearing aids as is a voice through a microphone.
    • If you are using a university setting, then the university owns them. Simple battery operated portable mics now cost below £50 a set. There is simply no excuse any more.
    • If it is a discussion panel, then you need one mic per person (max one between two).
    • You need a roving mic for the questions (everyone will be grateful for this, most people can’t hear if a question comes from someone in front of them).
    • All keynotes should be live captioned. (In an ideal world we’d live caption everything but it’s not cheap).
    • T-loops are good but not all of us use them for a range of reasons (including, if you have a t-loop next door my hearing aid would pick up next door’s meeting or their tv).
    • Consider Sign translation for the Deaf, but be aware that there is no “universal” Sign Language so that for international conferences you need to know the language of the user before you start, and that this will not help those with acquired deafness.
  2. If you are presenting there are generic tips here:
    • look up when you speak or read;
    • speak to the back of the room; do not turn your back when you are speaking;
    • do not cover your mouth when answering a question–some of us need to lip read;
    • don’t try to fit in too much: you may be able to speak faster, but your audience can’t hear faster;
    • put any data on to your slide, as this will help someone understand what you are talking about if they cannot hear it well;
    • put proper names on slides: much of our hearing (and this is true for everyone) is contextual, so I know what you have said because my brain fills in the gaps (when I use subtitles on the tv my brain is convinced I can “hear”); but this doesn’t work as well with proper names.
    • take important theoretical words or names slowly, even if you have said them a million times;
    • if you can, offer to circulate notes/slides in advance so that someone like me may read your paper and be in a position to ask questions (I have more than once followed a paper through someone’s twitter feed);
    • And finally use the microphone!!!!
  3. Learn how to use a microphone:
    • There are plenty of guides on the net, mostly for singers but everything they say is just as useful for speakers. Basically it needs to be close but not in front of your mouth: if it’s too close you will sound breathy. Do not do what one beloved friend does which is to wave it in front of his mouth so the sound goes in and out.
    • If offered a lapel mic take it; they are much better (if you are wearing a dress for a presentation, you will need a belt to put on to hang the mic from);
    • Teach others how to use microphone technique: if you are a supervisor, then when you teach people how to present make this part of the teaching.


Thank you for reading this.

Please circulate it, and please, if you have good hearing, be an ally and join in demanding microphones and that people use them.


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