Car Travel

Riding in Cars with HoHs

There is no secret to why riding in cars is so difficult for people who are Hard of Hearing (HoH). The environment of a moving vehicle is a cacophony of sensory stimulation; road and engine noise, wind noise if the windows are down, radio blaring, lively conversation, fluctuating light, and distracting scenery. It takes a lot of concentration for a HoH to hear and respond to speech in a car.

Chelle: I have a history of being a HoH in the car. One of my first signs of hearing loss was in the car. As a teenager, I hated sitting in the backseat because I could not understand what was being said up front. Before seatbelt laws, I could lean forward and force half my body in the front seat to hear. Now that I’m older, I’m content to sit in the back and read or play on my phone. 

We aren’t in the car, but… a picture of Chelle with her teenage kids.

Driving with a hearing loss has been a challenge…with hearing people in the car. Road noise and the stereo interferes with speech. When I was younger I adjusted my rear view mirror so I could watch the kids talk. Seeing is hearing! When no adult was along, one of the kids sat up front which gave them the responsibility of translating for the kids in the backseat. They didn’t seem to mind and I’m sure they used it to their advantage at times. The kids and I had another rule; talk or music, not both. The front seat kid would pause the stereo to translate backseat comments and questions.

Several years ago I got new hearing aids. They were so smart they automatically dampened the road noise and went into a forward focus mode. That meant my hearing aids were listening to the windshield, shutting down noise behind and beside me. My husband was not happy. He felt like my new hearing aids were worse than the old ones. I made an appointment with my audiologist and had my husband go with me, lending more credibility to the issue.

The audiologist called the hearing aid company about the situation. They were saying, “Her hearing aids adapt to those kinds of situations automatically,” and he told them, “No they are not.” Together they came up with the stroll program which forced the mics to listen from the side. It was developed for walking but it worked in the car too.

However, even with my hearing aids in, and in the right program, cars are not easy for conversation. It takes a lot of brain power, less if I’m the passenger but I’m still sifting through the noise. It’s more relaxing when I’m with my HoH friends. As HoHs, we decide to forgo talking, or the other person knows to look at me when talking and project their voice. It’s refreshing.

Julia: My experience with cars and HoHs is limited.  I remember one time while traveling with Sanderson Community Center for a workshop. There was an advance plan for the fast food drive through, we put together what everyone wanted to order, and my colleague Jorie Hill, who could hear and sign, placed the order. When questions came up she asked the appropriate person.

Julia and her grandmother.

My grandma and I maybe didn’t have the safest travel plan. Mostly it was me looking at her at an angle so she could lipread me with my eyes angled back at the road. Yikes! DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. I will say, we did have a lot of peaceful travels when I look back and think about it now.

Riding with Chelle and her husband Ken during a camping trip, I sat in the back so Chelle could hear/know when I was talking, something I knew. I caught myself answering Ken’s random questions/comments, which brought me to an ah-ha moment of, oh boy, hearing people have a hard time just sitting in the silence.

1978: Michele, riding in her boyfriend’s truck.

Michele: Early on, my coping mechanism for conversation in cars was to fake it. Unable to see a speaker’s face, I was on pins and needles waiting for the inevitable—communication breakdown. I had no idea how to say what was true, “If I can’t see you, I can’t hear you,” and I was taught not to inconvenience others. I kept my hearing loss mostly to myself.

Also, my hyperacusis complicates things, making road/car engine/wind noise painful. On long road trips I sometimes wear earplugs.

Eventually, I came to terms with how to inform others, and with my hearing abilities. With a profound hearing loss comes the acceptance that there are going to be situations where no effort on my part will be effective. Realizing I can choose where to apply my abilities was powerful and I began to take control by saying what is true.

In a dark car, I tell the others, “I would love to chat, but I can’t lipread in the dark.” In the daytime, “I would love to chat, but I’m not able to follow the conversation.” I always have a book, laptop, and/or phone to occupy myself. Notice, “I’m sorry…,” is not part of my explanations. Saying sorry is a bad habit many HoHs have. We’re doing everything we can to hear and it’s not our fault we have a hearing loss, so why be sorry?

As a driver, I let passengers know I can’t respond to speech I can’t see, adding: “You don’t want me to look away from the road to lipread.” 

My kids were always aware I wasn’t going to answer them unless it was an emergency. Sometimes on longer drives—it was an hour each way to get three kids to piano lessons—I would pull over to take questions or ask them what they wanted at a red light.

Passengers tend to get frantic when emergency vehicles are approaching. They excitedly give me instructions, but I can’t react to what I can’t hear. Most of the time I’ve already spotted the flashing lights. Once I pull over, I let passengers know that it is not helpful, and is even dangerous, to take my attention away from what I need to be focusing on while driving. A better solution would be to agree on a simple sign or gesture for such occasions.

Hearing Loss LIVE! would love to hear from other HoHs and their hearing family and friends on how they handle all of the issues that come up while riding in cars together. Feel free to share with us at

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Traveling by Plane

The Hard of Hearing (HoH) and deaf do not corner the market on being anxious about air travel and traveling alone. Many people who have no disability or barrier fear travel. However, the inability to hear announcements is an added anxiety and requires more presence of mind for the HoH to stay on top of important information they need to know.

Michele: I’ve been a frequent flier and enjoyed flight benefits for decades due to my husband working for a major airline at one time. Flying solo taught me so much about myself and honed my self-advocacy and communication skills. I recommend it as a great way to become self-sufficient and self-aware about your hearing loss and needs.

Two things you need to do every step of the way, with every person you encounter:

  • STOP FAKE HEARING—you have to get information right or you might miss a flight or wind up at the wrong destination. I used to not speak up when I wasn’t getting all of what a ticket or gate agent was saying. It only took a few times to see that faking it was a poor strategy that induced anxiety.
  • STATE YOUR TRUTH—when informing others, tell them exactly what they need to know about you and your communication needs. Simply saying, “I have a hearing loss,” or “I’m deaf,” isn’t enough; it leaves too much to the imagination. State exactly what is true, “I’m a lipreader, but it doesn’t always work and you may need you to write the information down for me so I can be sure of what you said.” I usually say this with a pen and pad at the ready.

When I first began traveling alone, no one believed that I was deaf because I coped so well as a lipreader—I received many compliments on my clear speech. I felt like I had to convince people that I really did have a hearing loss. And, even though I checked “Hearing Impaired” when I booked my flight, I was rarely approached about what I needed as a person with a disability, so it became evident I needed to take control.

When flying out of Atlanta years ago, I noticed the Special Services Security line and decided I’d give it a try. Fellow passengers and TSA employees challenged me for using the line—I don’t look disabled—so I asked for a supervisor. They confirmed that anyone with any disability was eligible to use the line, and that included hearing loss.

Special Services Line at the TSA/Security Checkpoint, Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)

If you get any pushback, educate. Once when leaving Salt Lake City, I had a TSA agent tell me the line was only for people in wheelchairs, while pointing to the “handicapped” sign. I politely pointed out that the wheelchair is only a symbol for disability, and doesn’t mean that the line is only for people in wheelchairs. A supervisor clarified this issue for the employee.

At smaller airports, there may not be a designated line for people with disabilities. If that is the case, inform the first TSA person you see of your disability and ask to go to the head of the line.

Chelle: Years ago I learned “hearing impaired” passengers could pre-board planes. At first, I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t feel impaired.  At one point I was in an airport that didn’t have visuals for announcements. I went to the boarding agent and let her know I could not hear and asked to pre-board. To my surprise she complied with no questions asked. Once I sat down on the plane, I realized how ALERT I had to be.

I used to sit as close to the boarding desk as possible. I’d keep my eyes on the agent to watch their movement for clues, strain to hear what I couldn’t, get up to look at arrival/departure boards, and more. Almost everyone else there was reading or playing on their phones. By the time I got on the plane I was worn out! 

From then on, I marked “hearing impaired” when buying plane tickets which guaranteed pre-boarding. Once on the plane, I could relax and read like everyone else had been in the waiting area. 

There are still some issues, like boarding agents forgetting to wave me over. Once there was an agent who wasn’t too happy letting me know what was going on and seemed put out. I told her, “I’m a lipreader. I’m going to stand right here at the desk so I can lipread your announcements.” After pausing, she said, “You can board now.”

Airports are noisy places and all that noise overrides most of the speech I can hear. The jet engines on planes also do a terrific job of overriding speech. It’s difficult to make small talk with strangers and I can’t understand the flight attendants either. I can guess at what they are saying (predict) because they follow a typical routine once I know they are there. I tell the person next to me I’m basically deaf on the plane which saves me conversation and saves some energy for the next leg of the trip. If the flight attendant needs my attention, I tell them to tap me on the arm. Most people are helpful in that way.  

Julia: Traveling with my grandmother in her later years was easy because she also needed a wheelchair to navigate the airport. So we always used the easiest navigation tools for those with disabilities. In hindsight, having me with her meant she could relax while waiting for our flights to board. If you are traveling with a hearing partner, make a plan to help alleviate anxiety.

With our new norm that includes masks and last minute flight changes due to all sorts of issues, I can hear nothing over the gate loudspeaker at an airport. And I have, as my kids call it, “Vulcan hearing”. I would love to start a movement that makes open captioning at airports mandatory; requiring airport terminal gate and check-in counters to be equipped with speech-to-text displays and LED boards that caption every gate/airport announcement.

Sensitivity training for ALL employees needs to happen. Educating about hearing loss is not limited to sign language. An understanding of, and better communication, and acquiring the skill is a big missing component.

Please, Airlines and TSA, help give your employees better tools. If you don’t know what those tools are, reach out to us, we are happy to give a workshop on communication with hearing loss.

  • USE THE SPECIAL SERVICES LINE for people with disabilities. It is for people with hearing loss.
  • ASK TO PRE-BOARD every time, don’t wait for it to be offered. Especially if you have carry-on luggage to stow overhead.
  • BE PROACTIVE don’t wait to inform about your hearing loss and communication needs. Tell everyone you encounter upfront. Being proactive is much better.
  • SAY WHAT’S TRUE when you board, tell the first flight attendant you see what they need to know about you. Example: “Hello, you need to know I’m deaf, but I am good at lipreading. I don’t need anything specific, but if you need to speak to me, please get my attention first by tapping me on the arm or shoulder. Also, I won’t hear any emergency announcements, so I will need you to come to my seat and let me know about any emergency.” Share the same information with your seatmates.

We all talk about the wheelchair thing… if you’ve checked the “Hearing Impaired” box when booking your flight, odds are you will find a wheelchair waiting for you when you deplane. For some, this is a good accommodation, for others not at all. If a wheelchair isn’t something you will use, thank the person holding the placard with your name and let them know that a wheelchair is not the accommodation you need; then tell them what would be a better accommodation—communication access (text of announcements). Ask that they relay that information to their superiors.

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