Some ideas for setting up an interview for a narrator with a hearing impairment

At the Oral History Center, we have the pleasure of learning about many projects, and we hear lots questions. We try to find the answers and connect people who are asking the questions with those who know the answers.

A question recently came our way that had to do with interviewing a person with a hearing impairment. How do we make the interview work well for the narrator and for the recording?    I asked lots of people, and I am passing on the three (really four) responses:


1) This one works well because it does not require purchasing and then learning software:

From Christa Whitney at the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project:

I have definitely encountered this situation. A hard of hearing person will fill in if they understand one word or phrase, so be prepared for misunderstandings. One thing to know is (most) people read lips a lot, especially as hearing loss comes on gradually—so always face the narrator when speaking. I’d recommend a situation where the oral historian is not masked—with appropriate testing protocol/other risk mitigation in place (cracked window, good airflow—though not too loud to interfere with the hearing!), of course. Does the narrator have hearing aids? If so, be sure they are on and working. And minimize other noises in the space. Hearing aids do not filter sound the way that ears do naturally.
Another option is to write out the questions. This could be done ahead of time (though that would limit the organic flow of the interview) or on a small white board or notebook, if the oral historian can write clearly quickly. And patience, empathy, and more patience and empathy!
(For this option, I would recommend a second person, if possible. Maybe someone who manages the audio recording. Once sound levels are established that person could serve as scribe.)


From Sarah-Jane Poindexter, Roving Archivist for the Mass. State Historical Records Advisory Board: She also suggested the white board.


2) This one is a list of ideas (untested by us) for people who love to play with technology:

From Pam Farron, Director of Services for Students with Disabilities at Berkshire Community College

• How about using a lavalier mic?
• You could also use Zoom auto caption options. They’re very accurate. You could just set up the computer monitor for him to read the captions, even if you don’t actually host it via Zoom.
• There is also Otter.AI app with free 600 minutes. You can put it on your phone, set the phone on the table, and it will take your dictation. He can read the questions and replies.
• Most computers today have speech to text built in, but not always as accurate – again, he would read your dictation.
• There are numerous other things, but not quick to obtain, and you would need to know type of hearing aids.


3)  This one involves a person who uses American Sign Language. So, this is not necessarily for an elder who has lost some hearing ability. 

From Sam Redman, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts:
 He remembered an interview conducted at Berkeley in this way:

One video camera on the ASL interpreter/interviewer, the second camera on the narrator, and they could look at each other. The interviewer, fluent in ASL, had been given example questions and some training by oral historians.

Of course, you would test these options before deciding.   Let us know if you have tried these or other ideas. We will post them.

Written by Judith