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.