Does Hearing Loss Affect Your Sense of Direction?

Last April, the New Yorker Magazine ran an article about animal migration called “Why Animals Don’t Get Lost,” by Kathryn Schulz. The article was full of fascinating insights into animal navigation and amazing tales of seemingly impossible journeys. But one passage leapt out at me:

“The problem isn’t that humans don’t have any innate way-finding tools. We, too, can steer by landmark, and we can locate the source of sounds or other environmental cues and make our way toward them. (With sounds, we do this much like frogs: by unconsciously assessing either the intensity differential or the time delay between a noise in our right ear and in our left one.)”

If you have hearing loss, you may not have that sense of directionality. My hearing loss is bilateral and wildly uneven, which affects my ability to locate the source of a sound.  If someone calls to me from another room, I can’t tell where they are. Where are you?, I shout, to their annoyance – and mine. Although I can often hear a bird call, I can almost never find the bird. In that sense, my hearing loss does affect my sense of direction.

Photo by Isaque Pereira on Pexels.com

If you have bilateral hearing loss that is the same in both ears, however, as most age- or noise-related hearing loss is, and if your hearing is corrected by hearing aids, it seems logical that you shouldn’t have any trouble using audible feedback as a guide. But I haven’t read anything about this, so it’s only a surmise. Readers, if you have hearing loss that is bilateral and equal on both sides, do you have trouble locating the source of sounds?

Although we use our ears to locate, we don’t for the most part use them to navigate, in the sense of assessing directionality. Our hearing loss affects our ability to navigate in a more prosaic way. We can’t hear auditory signals. We need other input to aid us in way-finding.

Way-finding is an important component in designing public spaces, and it’s especially important for people with disabilities. The New York City subway is a good example. Until recently, information about route changes, elevator outages, delays, and so on were delivered by garbled public-address systems in the stations and on subway cars. Longer term information (elevator out of service for maintenance or repair) was relayed by paper signs taped to the walls. Many people were confused much of the time, whether or not they had a disability.

In recent years, the MTA has developed an Accessibility Team, including an Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility. made up of individuals with disabilities (ACTA, I am a member), to improve access for people with disabilities. Most visible are obstacles to people with mobility disabilities who depend on the system’s notoriously unreliable elevators.

But much of what the team addresses is less well understood by the general public. These include the navigational needs of people with hearing loss, the deaf-blind, people with cognitive disabilities. For instance, the subway system includes a number of stations where many lines cross. Jay Street/MetroTech in Brooklyn is one of these hubs. Four subway lines cross, and the station has three levels below street level. A mezzanine level has fare arrays as well as staircases and elevators down to the three different platforms. Trains run on different levels, with the IND trains one level down from the mezzanine, BMT trains two levels down from the mezzanine, all connected by multiple passageways. Talk about confusing. In 2019, SWA turned the Jay Street/MetroTech station into a laboratory for testing accessibility features for subway riders.

Some existing ADA-accessible features are what you’d expect: working elevators and directions to them, hearing loops at information and help kiosks (freestanding blue-light stanchions in many stations), Braille lettering on signage. In the second half of 2019, the Accessibility team installed and tested additional, more innovative accessibility features:: Tactile interactive maps. Bright, contrasting color-coded directional floor treatments , with the colors matching the color-coded lines: yellow for the BMT (the R train), blue and orange for the IND lines (the A, C, and F). , etc). ADA blue (darker blue) indicates the accessible path of travel. Tactile floor guides and warning strips at stairways and platform edge benefit the blind — or, in the case of the platform edge, just people who aren’t paying enough attention.

Way-finding apps include NaviLens, which provides audio information, and ClickandGo Wayfinding,which offers step by step audio descriptions and accompanying high-contrast color maps, similar to the floor designs. You can see all these on the MTA’s Accessible Station webpage. Many of the tested features remain at the Jay Street/MetroTech Station, though not surprisingly the floor guides are beginning to fade.

Here are some photos from Jay Street/Metrotech Station.

Some of these accessible-navigation features would be a help to any traveler. Floor treatments in contrasting colors, clear and consistent icons on all signage, signage at eye level instead of overhead, directional markings on the floor, these benefit anyone who uses the subway, not just those with disabilities.

For the deaf and hard of hearing signage is essential. It’s another form of captioning. If you don’t have to ask for directions, you’re never handicapped by not being able to hear the answer.

So, to go back to my original question: Does Hearing Loss Affect Your Sense of Direction? Yes, it can affect the ability to locate by sound. It also may affect the ability to navigate by sound, but primarily in the sense of not being able to hear spoken directions. The inability to follow sound cues in navigation needn’t be a handicap if those directions are also offered visually. Captions are the wheelchair ramp for the deaf, as we often like to say.

For more about hearing loss, read my books Shouting Won’t Help and Smart Hearing.

10 thoughts on “Does Hearing Loss Affect Your Sense of Direction?

  1. Quick answer = “of course it does!” All the things you mention are so true. I’m in the SF Bay Area where considerations for the HOH are still very few. The rapid transit system is putting loops in its new cars, but they are very few so far, and given the recent dip in ridership, who knows how many more will appear, when. Loops very few in area auditoria and churches. And when they are present, they are generally not widely promoted or told about to the attending public. It’s very hit or miss. The pandemic has put all this on hold for me, as I’ve been going out seldom. Here’s to improvements.

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  2. Catherine: I never thought of this and have a question that I’m really curious about. Up until my 40’s, I had the equivalent of perfect pitch for directions. I always just knew all directions and where I need to go. Around the time my hearing loss (bilateral, uneven) got much worse, I completely lost that sense of direction and it’s never come back (I’m now 69.) any idea what could cause that? It doesn’t seem like it’s sounds as I wasn’t listening or needing to know a direction to know all of the directions, but after reading this, it’s hard to imagine that loss is coincidental with my hearing getting much worse. Any thoughts? Mark

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    • That’s so interesting, and I don’t know the answer. But I also used to think I had “perfect pitch” for directions. Initially when it started to go, I thought I wasn’t able to hold the directions in my head because I hadn’t heard them properly. But it seems like it’s more than that. I have no idea! But it’s really interesting.

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  3. Thank you, as always, for your blog. This was particularly helpful, even though you didn’t give me the excuse I wanted for the fact that, walking or driving, I constantly head in the wrong direction — even when retracing the route I came by!
    However, I have experienced the inability to audio locate the source of a sound that you describe. I wore hearing two hearing aids for about 30 years and then had one CI and a hearing aid for 3 years. For most of that time, my hearing was uneven and I was often asking “Where are you?” About a year after my second CI was activated, I noticed that I was getting better and better at locating the source of a sound. It is not perfect, but it is much better than it was. So, I think your hunch about even vs. uneven hearing is correct.
    Your information about how the MTA is making its system more accessible is both helpful and fascinating. So glad they have people like you working with them!

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  4. Great question! Thanks for thinking of it and asking.
    I wear 2 HAs and have similar, but not identical hearing loss in my ears. But I have Meniere’s, which includes fluxuating hearing loss, which can shift from hour to hour. But does it change the same in each ear? Who knows!
    But this I know: I can hear sirens when I drive — but I haven’t a clue where it’s coming from until I can see flashing lights on an emergency vehicle.
    I also lost, as some point, my ability to know where a car was coming from as a pedestrian. I didn’t consciously know I relied on that until one day I just walked across the street to get in the my friends’ car and I just didn’t register that a “car noise” had anything to do with me — until its driver slammed on its brakes and I saw the looks of horror on my friends’ faces and turned to see the car that nearly hit me. I think I knocked 10 years off all of their lives-but not mine. I didn’t know to be scared and so I wasn’t. How unfair is that to my friends! (But I did learn to look very carefully when I crossed streets, which has probably added decades to my life.) (No one tells you you have to re-learn how to cross the street when you get HAs.)
    For years I had excellent directionality. If I’d been someplace, even a decade or more ago, I could navigate to it from memory. I just “knew” where it was. When that began to fade I thought it was because I was learning to be less of a control freak so I wasn’t as hyper-alert all the time. But your question makes me wonder: maybe it was because I was in early (deniable) stages of hearing loss?

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    • I’m the same with sirens. It’s not a problem on a highway, because I can look in the rearview mirror. But in a city or town I have no idea where the sound is coming from. I do have excellent peripheral vision — or maybe I’ve acquired it as a result of hearing loss. It helps a lot.

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  5. HI Katherine….

    fantastic article..so true for me….i stopped driving when i moved to Israel….had sound localization problems before…then..living here, where everyone drives like a lunatic..speeding, going wrong way down one way streets….can’t detect location of honking horns, or sirens…i just gave up driving…can’t read the street signs, or follow directions on WAZE, or Google maps, because street signs are in Hebrew and i cannot learn Hebrew because of my hearing loss….it’s been 5 years of crazy…like living on another planet..there are no advocacy groups like there are in USA…

    People here, just don’t understand, or have empathy, or really care about anyone who has hearing loss…let alone concern about localization….no point in complaining…there’s no one here , whom I can even lodge a complaint…

    This country is at least 10 years behind the USA, in terms of caring about disabled people….even with all of the amazing technology that comes from here….what a crying shame…

    Stay welll

    Ronnie

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    • Thank you for this comment. Your description of the driving conditions in Israel is vivd — I don’t think I’d drive there either, whether or not I could hear. And, as you say, Israel is so innovative about technology that it’s surprising it lags behind is providing access to people with disabilities.

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