Part 3: Hearing Impairment
[EDITORS NOTE: This is PART 3 of a multi-part series. Links to the other parts will be provided as they are updated. -dc]
This is Part 3 of ‘Making Your Game Accessible’, looking at ways to make your gaming table an inviting space for all gamers. In Part 1 we talked about why accessibility is important, and in Part 2 we started to look at some specifics of accessibility focused on visual impairment. Today in Part 3 we’ll examine how hearing loss can affect gaming, and ways to make your game hearing impairment friendly.
First, let’s look at the numbers. According to our friends over at the World Health Organization, a person is considered to have hearing loss if they do not meet minimum thresholds of 25dB in each ear. Hearing loss is rated as mild, moderate, severe, or profound. Those falling in the first three ratings are considered ‘hard of hearing’, and while there is a range of severity those affected can often communicate verbally and compensate for the hearing loss through surgery or cochlear implants. The last rating, profound, is where someone who is considered deaf falls. It is estimated, as of 2017, that approximately 360 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, falling into the severe and profound range.
Until you really sit and think about it, you don’t realize how much of tabletop gaming relies on verbal communication. I’m not even talking about gameplay at this point. If you’re running an organized play game in a store, for instance, there is a whole series of communications which have to happen before you can start play; what character are you bringing, what’s you organized play number, what level do you all want to play at, and so on. Not to mention the verbal aspects of social cues. We gamers sometimes get a bad reputation for being socially awkward at the best of times. Add to that a reduced ability to pick up on verbal cues (“What’s your name?” “What are you playing tonight?” “Did you see Game of Thrones last night?”), and it is possible for tensions to mount before the game even begins.
So your first step, as it should always be, is to communicate with the player and determine what they will need from you and the other players. This can be an uncomfortable conversation, and the hearing impaired player might be equally uncomfortable having it. Respect their boundaries, be positive, and remember that you are working to make their experience at the table the best it can be. If they are somewhere on the hard of hearing spectrum all that might be required is a shift to a quieter location and seating the player where they can best hear you. They may also have other special requests which you should try to accommodate as best as you can. Perhaps the player reads lips, in which case you’ll want to set things up to make that work. But discussing the situation with the player is key.
Here are a few things to keep in mind, regardless of the level of hearing impairment, which will help make your table more accessible:
- Make sure you have visual aides (handouts, pictures, maps, miniatures) for as much of the adventure as possible. If possible, supply multiple copies so that the information is always in front of the hearing impaired player. If there is pre- and post-game housekeeping that needs to take place (for organized play or leagues, for instance) consider making handouts for that process as well. And always have paper and pencil at hand so you can write notes to fill in any gaps in the handouts.
- Seat the hearing impaired player in the position which best serves them. That may be near you so they have the best chance of hearing you (for hard of hearing players) or across from you so they can see you face when you speak (for players who may be able to read lips).
- Ensure you speak clearly, making sure to enunciate, and don’t rush your words. That doesn’t mean talk slow, it just means don’t let excitement speed up your speech either. Not only will this help a hard of hearing player understand you, but it also makes things easier for players who might be reading lips. If your hearing impaired player is reading lips, don’t cover your mouth while speaking, and when addressing the group make sure you are faced towards them. Don’t speak with your mouth full. It’s gross any time, but especially for the player who has to look at your mouth. Now is also not the time for mood lighting; make sure the space is well lit so the player can see your face.
- Along the same lines it is important to remind your players not to talk over each other, and make sure they are making their speech accessible to the hearing impaired player. Everything in the previous point is applicable to them.
Your first session with a hearing impaired player has gone well and they are coming back next week. Well done! Here are a few things you might consider as you move forward, to improve their experience even further.
Most phones come with a voice-to-text feature, allowing you to speak and have your words appear on your phone’s screen. It’s even likely the hearing impaired player uses that feature regularly. Consider using a microphone you can hook up to their (or your) phone, to better catch every word spoken. Even better, consider setting up a larger display in front of your GM screen (or just in front of you if you don’t use a GM screen) so that the player can still follow along with what you are saying without having to look down at their phone. Add a keyboard to the mix and your hearing impaired player can type responses and provide their character actions quickly.
For this set-up to work best, it’s important to make sure you and your players are following the rules you’ve already set for not speaking over each other, as that will get confusing on the screen very quickly. And speaking clearly and everything else we’ve discussed are still important, especially if the speech-to-text misses or garbles something.
This last point may not be practical for in-store events or game days, but could be looked at for gaming conventions. Consider having an ASL (American Sign Language, or your country’s equivalent) interpreter available to translate during a game session. Essentially they would sit or stand next to the GM and interpret both for the deaf player and the GM, and possibly other players around the table. Unless your interpreter was also a gamer this would likely require some preparation ahead of time, so that the interpreter could familiarize themselves with some of the specialized terminology.
Hiring an ASL interpreter can be costly, much as with hiring any language interpreter. You are paying for their expertise in another language, after all. But in many places there are volunteer organizations which can help, and in checking with your municipal or provincial (state) governments you may find grants or programs designed to provide aid. It’s certainly worth checking out.
Looking around the industry, I’m not seeing any specific work or projects to aid or support hearing impaired players. If I’ve missed anything I’m happy to be corrected, though, so if you’ve noticed something I haven’t please share it in the comments. I’ll gladly take a look and update this article to include it.
What about you? Do you have any ideas for making your table more accessible to the hearing impaired player? Share them in the comments and we can talk.
In the next few articles, we’ll discuss other nerdy things, but we’ll return to Making Your Game Accessible in a few weeks to discuss physical impairment. In the meantime, have great games!