Culture of Support

When not being able to hear gets in the way of learning, help is available

September 26, 2016
Valerie Stafford-Mallis

Valerie Stafford-Mallis, director of Chapter Development for the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), is among those who Loren O’Connor calls on to help the Brandman community understand issues around hearing loss.

Frustration. Anger. Embarrassment.

Every student has probably felt those emotions at some point along the academic journey. For students with hearing loss, particularly veterans, those emotions can be an everyday occurrence, and they can make learning difficult.

That’s one of the reasons that Brandman University’s Office of Accessible Education and Counseling Services provides both a variety of tools and resources to help students cope and educates faculty and staff about the difficulties faced by students whose hearing is impaired.

Among those providing insight at the urging of Assistant Vice Chancellor Loren O’Connor is Valerie Stafford-Mallis, director of Chapter Development for the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), who previously talked with faculty and staff members. In a recent Communication Assisted Realtime Translation (CART) conversation, Stafford-Mallis, O’Connor and Brandman Communications Manager Cindy O’Dell talked about the academic challenges created by hearing loss, the prevalence of hearing loss and more. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

O’Connor: I have to share a quick story. I have a brand new student who just had significant hearing loss. It was very sudden. He was just starting a program and was absolutely overwhelmed and anxious. He knew nothing about real-time captioning, closed captioning and called me in a panic attack. So this (CART) is what we’re coordinating for him. This is a great thing to see (in action) because it gives you full accessibility.

O’Dell: If there was just one thing you would want people to know about hearing loss, what would that be?

Stafford-Mallis: That one size does not fit all. There’s hearing loss and then there’s hearing loss and then there’s hearing loss. My hearing loss is not the same as the graduate student’s hearing loss and his is not going to be the same as somebody else’s.

So when attempting to assist a student with hearing loss, it’s really important to work with the student and let them tell you when they’re able to hear and communicate and when they’re not, and what helps them and what doesn’t help them. The biggest mistake people make when they try to assist folks with hearing loss is thinking that they know what the other person needs, and that’s not always the case.

Dr. Loren O'Connor is the director of Brandman University's Office of Disability Services and Accesible Education. He works with students, faculty and staff to make sure needs are being met.

Dr. Loren O’Connor

O’Connor: There are people who are born deaf and then there are people like (Stafford-Mallis, who became deaf later in life). Someone wanted me to hire American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. And I said, we have a few people with significant hearing loss as a result of IEDs in Afghanistan and they do not know ASL. That is typically for someone who is born deaf and is learning it from childhood on up.

Stafford-Mallis: There’s deaf with a capital D and deaf with a little d. First of all deaf … means someone whose sense of hearing is not sufficient to support communication either with or without assistive technology. Deaf with a capital D is actually what Loren described. It would be someone who perhaps was born deaf or lost their hearing before speech and language were fully formed. We call that pre-lingual deafness. These individuals will consider sign language to be their first language and sign language is not English. It’s more like French in terms of syntax and grammar.

Then you have deaf with a little d, and that would be individuals who don’t hear without assistive technology … but don’t embrace deafness as a cultural construct. I embrace it as a medical condition that I want to fix. There’s a big difference.



O’Dell: Why don’t students speak up about their own hearing loss?

Stafford-Mallis: Brandman University has a lot of veterans, these are individuals that went overseas hearing typically and came back with hearing loss, among other types of disabilities. And so there may be a great deal of anger at everything that happened to them over there. There’s that sense of not being fit for duty anymore. There might be that feeling of being broken, that there might be something wrong with them, there might be a sense of shame.

At the beginning of one’s journey, there’s a very definite yearning to go back to the capabilities that one once had. Denial is not always intention. Sometimes people really don’t understand what they’re not hearing. How would they? They’re not hearing it, but everybody around them is aware of it.

O’Connor: I find with most of my veterans, who were deployed three to six times, there is severe tinnitus, hearing loss, traumatic brain injury and PTSD. They are coming in with multiple issues and they don’t like to fully disclose because it is not part of the veteran or military culture. We’re reaching out more and more. And you’re absolutely correct. Students who have hearing loss don’t realize what they’re missing because they don’t hear it.

Stafford-Mallis: Right, and so what has to happen is somehow the environment has to be created that will allow them to feel safe. It is OK to have hearing loss.  And that is a social support thing. That’s a big part of what we do at HLAA and our chapter meetings. Imagine you are a person with hearing loss and your whole life has been predicated around trying to hide this, right?

And suddenly you walk into a room where nobody can hear. And you’re like, “Oh, my God! I can hear better than that guy!” So it is a very freeing experience. But the challenge is how do you get them to walk into that meeting for the first time? And your (Brandman University’s) challenge is, how do you get them to disclose the fact that they are struggling and how do you get them to accept the help you can offer?

O’Connor: How I get them is with all the assistive technology, particularly the veterans. I don’t talk about their challenges. I don’t say disability or disabled. And once they hear about the iPad or Kurzweil (speech to text technology) or CART services, they brighten up. Once they get into the program, they start using it. I gave one young man a smart pen … and he was almost in tears because he can get the content. And there is more we can do for him. But getting over the fear of rejection or prejudice and kind of feeling inadequate or feeling less-than, that’s the message that sometimes goes out to people that have challenges.

Stafford-Mallis: You have to position it so people know what’s in it for them. What you can do is talk to them about how fatiguing it is to try to make sense when you’re maybe only understanding 25 percent of what’s being said. And you just let them know that there’s a reason for that. Their brains are expending so much executive function and capacity trying to overcome that 25 percent they have no capacity left over to process the content.

You can say to them, if you try this, I think at the end of the class or at the end of the day, you’re going to feel a lot different. You’re not going to be as tired. You’re not going to have as much muscle fatigue and headaches from straining to overcome the biology of hearing loss. Try it and see!

O’Dell: If you have a student who has obviously lost hearing, but not total hearing loss, what sorts of things can they do to help themselves beyond the assistive technology?

Stafford-Mallis: One of the things that we teach people at the Hearing Loss Association of America chapter meetings is the necessity to own their hearing loss …. how necessary it is for them to get a copy of their audiogram from their healthcare profession. And if they don’t have one, to get one. And to get it explained to them so they understand what effect their particular hearing loss is having on their particular functional capabilities. You must become the expert on your hearing loss, understand what causes you problems and understand what helps you.

Once they have that self-knowledge, we work with them to strengthen their courage muscles so they are comfortable and effective advocating for what they need. If you’re not confident in asking for what you need or you’re so angry or frustrated, you demand what you need. That rarely works well.

O’Connor: What other things should faculty be aware of if they’re working with students in person. If a faculty member thinks a student can’t hear, is there a good way to approach them?

Stafford-Mallis: I think that if the faculty member has a visual on the student, many times you can see some signs, some visual signs that an individual is struggling. When somebody is speech reading you, they will be looking at your mouth really, really closely. So much so that you might think you have spinach in your teeth. Speech reading is best accomplished when one person is looking directly at another, so if the speaker turns his head, the person with hearing loss might actually move so that they can still be looking at the speaker straight on. Sometimes if an individual has hearing loss on one side, they might always be turning their good ear towards the speaker.

People with hearing loss will get lost in a conversation. So if the subject changes, the person with hearing loss might not realize it and they might still be on whatever topic was being discussed before.

O’Dell: Let’s talk a little about tinnitus.

Stafford-Mallis: Technically it is the dying gasp of hair cells in the cochlea that have sustained noise damage. If you can imagine an ocean breaking over a sea wall, you know that kind of pounds against the concrete and breaks off pieces of it, that’s kind of what is happening with tinnitus. The medical definition is basically the perception of sound when there is no sound source.

It’s different things for different people. Sometimes it is a buzz; sometimes it is clicks; sometimes it’s crickets and it is maddening.

O’Dell: So any student or veteran with that would face similar issues in the classroom in terms of being able to concentrate on what is being said?

Stafford-Mallis: Absolutely. And that’s exhausting. Imagine trying to use your vision and cognitive capabilities to make up for what your ears are capable of doing. I would have headaches (before getting help for her hearing loss). I would be exhausted. My temper at work was shot. I was frustrated. I was angry. All of those things and I certainly wasn’t learning anything.

Advice for the hearing, hearing-impaired

Tips for a hearing person to communicate with a person who has a hearing loss

  • Face person directly.
  • Spotlight your face (no backlighting).
  • Avoid noisy backgrounds.
  • Get attention first.
  • Ask how you can facilitate communication.
  • When audio and acoustics are poor, emphasize the visual.
  • Don’t shout.
  • Speak clearly, at moderate pace, not over-emphasizing words.
  • Don’t hide your mouth, chew food, gum, or smoke while talking.
  • Re-phrase if you are not understood.
  • Use facial expressions, gestures.
  • Give clues when changing subjects or say “new subject.”
  • Be patient if response seems slow.
  • Talk to a hard of hearing person, not about him or her to another person.
  • Show respect to help build confidence and have a constructive conversation.
  • Maintain a sense of humor, stay positive and relaxed.

Tips for a person with hearing loss to communicate with hearing people

  • Tell others how best to talk to you.
  • Pick your best spot (light, quiet area, close to speaker).
  • Anticipate difficult situations, plan how to minimize them.
  • Pay attention.
  • Concentrate on speaker.
  • Look for visual clues.
  • Ask for written cues if needed.
  • Don’t interrupt. Let conversation flow to fill in the blanks and gain more meaning.
  • Maintain a sense of humor, stay positive and relaxed.
  • Let the speaker know how well he or she is conveying the information.
  • Don’t bluff. Admit it when you don’t understand.
  • If too tired to concentrate, ask for discussion later.
  • Thank the speaker for trying


• 48 million Americans, or 20 percent of all Americans, report some degree of hearing loss.
• 60 percent of the people with hearing loss are either in the workforce or in educational settings.
• Veterans are 30 percent more likely to have a severe hearing loss than non-veterans.
• Veterans who served between 2001 and 2010 were four times more likely than non-veterans to have severe hearing loss.
• Among military veterans, severe hearing loss and hearing-related problems like tinnitus are the most common disability.
Sources:; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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