Updated: Dec 23, 2020
CN: winter holidays, COVID-19/pandemic, Deaf and Hard of Hearing relatives, advice, accessibility, exclusion and isolation
When you’re Deaf or Hard of Hearing (HoH), spending time with a Hearing family for the winter holidays is tough enough – add in a global pandemic, and a spanner has really been thrown into the works!
What is Dinner Table Syndrome (DTS)?
Dinner Table Syndrome (or DTS) is the phenomenon that when being around a table, such as for a family dinner, Deaf and HoH people feel very isolated, despite being surrounded by a table of (mostly, Hearing) people. This is because when people are together at times like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice or other winter celebrations, it is very easy to fall into habits such as talking with mouths full, talking over each other and at a very quick pace, mumbling and head-turning, swift changes of conversation topics, as well as having dimmed “mood” lighting and festive music playing in the background. This all leads to an inaccessible environment and makes communication really difficult – as lipreading and following conversation can become impossible. This means that Deaf and HoH folk feel excluded from family meals, leading to further isolation, stress, and believing that we’re insignificant.
What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic caused?
Compared to a regular festive holiday, COVID-19 has meant that families are unable to gather together in their massive numbers – and also the inability to go out and do fun activities such as going to winter markets, watching singing/concerts, abroad holidays, volunteering, ice skating etc. Even more “mundane” family traditions such as watching films, going food shopping, doing "Secret Santa" and opening presents is a lot more difficult this year to do as a whole family.
So, whether it’s watching films, decorating, making festive treats, or (restricted) family time and board games, it’s important to make sure everyone feels included and has a good time!
1 in 6 people have some form of hearing loss [link], so it’s likely that at least one member in a person’s (chosen or biological) family is Deaf or HoH. For years, I found December a really stressful time and resented my family for making me feel so excluded – but the truth is, that most family members aren’t actually aware that’s how we feel or that they’ve been doing things to make it inaccessible!
So, here are some tips for starting that difficult conversation of telling your family that you’re Deaf/HoH - and how to make your time together a bit more accessible.
- Ensure there is good lighting
- When possible, avoid background noise e.g. sit away from kitchen clatter and ask to reduce or turn off the music.
- Be upfront about and say that you are Deaf/HoH if they don’t know (or need reminding!)
- Explain how you want to communicate and what they can do to help
- I find that decorating my hearing aids is a great ice breaker and conversation starter – and a great way to remind people of your needs! “Look, I decorated my hearing aids this year with a wreath charm! Oh, just to remind you that I find it really difficult to understand more than one conversation, so it would really help to reduce the music this year!”
- Ask people to repeat themselves and be confident to keep asking until you understand, or ask them to rephrase/communicate differently
- If possible, try and see if you can eat at a round table (although I appreciate that this is a big and expensive investment if none currently exist)
- Try and seat yourself where you are able to be most involved
- Don’t be the life of the party - “zone out” and focus only on one conversation or person
- Have a person who agrees to help out, such as a partner or relative you’re particularly close to – they can keep you up-to-date and tell you the subject of convo if you seem lost, relay what someone asks you if you don’t understand and generally help you feel calmer
- Maybe introduce a rule at the dinner table – have a wooden spoon on the table, where people are not allowed to speak unless holding the spoon
- Alternatively, have a rule to only chat between courses – when meal in front of you, people eat; and instead talk before or after eating, to aid the ability to lipread/communicate properly
- Remind people not to speak with their mouth full or turning their head away as if we can’t see the person, we can’t read their lips
- Ask your family to put the subtitles on the TV – or do it yourself!
- Try and make sure you are seated where you are able to fully see the subtitles
- Ask people to try and keep chatting throughout the film to a minimum, or to pause the film if people want to say or discuss something!
Food shopping: this year is a lot more hectic and online lots are filling up extremely quickly, and only a few members per household are allowed to go shopping.
- Perhaps ask (or buy in advance) people who will be shopping with you to wear clear face masks.
- Take a pen & paper with you, or have a phone app ready, for the person going with you, so they can write/type if communication breaks down.
- Ask them to gesture; food shopping makes it a lot easier to gesture towards the carrots to know what is on your family’s mind!
- If you’re too anxious, maybe write down a list of what you want to be purchased and have someone you trust go instead (for example, your partner or relative you’re closest with)
Virtual Get-Togethers: the new norm this year for those unable to get together
- Ask what platform the family plans to use, and maybe volunteer to be the host so you can find a platform that is most accessible to you! For example, Zoom is a great option, but maybe if you rely on captions, set up a Google Meet call instead.
- Remind everyone of your access needs at the start of the call. For example, I tell my family to make sure they have good lighting, always face the camera before speaking, and raise their hand for their turn so I know who to focus on!
- If you miss something, ask them to repeat it!
- If you are going to be with someone over the holiday, maybe a housemate or a partner you live with – maybe get them in on the call so they can help out if you get stuck.
- As people drink more, deaf awareness often goes out the window
- Remind people, while they are still sober, to think of how to communicate when tipsy, e.g. who will remind them to face you? if words become slurred, what alternative communication can they use?
- Maybe have a “sober buddy” who can help out: if you have a family member who doesn’t drink, maybe they can stay with you during the evening and help out any communication battles as the family start to drink more.
When it gets too much
- Take time out and find a quiet space, maybe your room or wherever you’re staying
- take deep breaths to collect yourself
- make an excuse if you want (or say what you’re doing), and spend maybe 15-30 minutes without your hearing aids/cochlear implant/BAHA on and just rest
Tips for hearing family
- Include your Deaf/HoH family members when telling a story and ensure they can understand the conversation
- If your Deaf/HoH relative misses something, don’t leave them out of the conversation, or say “it doesn’t matter”
- Brush up on your fingerspelling and signs (even if it's basic)
- Remember that it’s difficult if multiple people are talking to each other as we can’t focus on more than one person at once, so try your best to wait your turn and speak at a normal pace
- Noise and chatter drowns out conversation so try and keep to quiet environments
I hope this helps to have a more relaxing winter holiday!