October 17, 2018, was a frightening day for me. On that day, I struggled to hear the speakers at my Toastmasters club, Park Central in Phoenix, Arizona. I feared I would have to drop out of an organization that I have enjoyed for more than 30 years.
Preparing and delivering speeches offered me mental stimulation, enhanced my communication skills, and allowed me to share my experiences with a group of people who had become my friends.
But that day my hearing aids failed to compensate for my hearing loss.
I needed to find a system that worked for the hard of hearing—people with hearing loss who rely on audible communication and not sign language. With more than 800,000 people with hearing loss in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, I thought many others would likely share my experience. (More than 360 million people worldwide experience hearing loss.)
I decided to establish a club accessible for the hard of hearing: Audible Talkers Toastmasters.
It’s been about a year since we formed. Because of this club, located in Tempe, Arizona, I didn’t have to quit Toastmasters—I have been able to continue my journey of listening to and learning from fellow members. In fact, being a member of Audible Talkers has inspired my goal of becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM).
Our club uses assistive hearing technology. When I set out to start the Audible Talkers, I called several organizations to ask if we could use their meeting rooms, which had the particular technology we needed. I didn’t have much luck until I reached Michele Stokes, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance specialist for the city of Tempe. She happily allowed Audible Talkers to use a room in the city’s public library equipped with a special type of sound system used by people with hearing loss.
Why was Michele so eager to help? “I am a former Toastmaster who has profound hearing loss,” she told me, “and I firmly believe in the strategies that Toastmasters uses to improve public speaking.” The Tempe Commission on Disability Concerns sponsored the club.
Because of this club, I didn’t have to quit Toastmasters—I have been able to continue my journey listening to and learning from my fellow members.
On July 1, 2019, we held our first meeting: a demonstration meeting, with Toastmasters from other clubs filling the functionary roles. One of our guests was Peggy Staples, president of a local chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America. “I had always wanted to be in Toastmasters but because of my hearing loss, I was fearful of attending a meeting and not being able to hear and fully participate,” she said.
Word about the club spread, and in November 2019 we reached the 20 members necessary to become an official Toastmasters club. Half of the members were hard of hearing.
In the first three months of 2020, members registered for Pathways, learned the roles of meeting functionaries, delivered speeches, and participated in various Toastmasters speech contests. Our Tall Tales representative at the Area Contest, Minerva Gutierrez, who has cochlear implants in both ears, credits the Audible Talkers club for her ability to participate in a speech contest for the first time.
When our club began holding virtual meetings via Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic, participating in online meetings offered more benefits: We were fortunate to use a free captioning service provided through the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
The development of captioning options for Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms provides an opportunity for Toastmasters clubs around the world to add captions to their video meetings, making them accessible to hard of hearing people.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has changed how the world operates, the Audible Talkers Club is ready for the challenge. The club has shown that hearing loss doesn’t need to mean the loss of Toastmasters in our lives.
Harry Wolfe has been a Toastmaster for more than 30 years and is currently a member of the Audible Talkers Toastmasters in Tempe, Arizona.