As COVID-19 continues to circulate, face masks are becoming mandatory in more and more locations. Face masks do a lot to slow the spread of the disease, but they have an unfortunate impact on the hearing loss community. With everyone wearing them, there is a risk that those with hearing loss are even more socially isolated than before.
The Problem With Face Masks
There are two main issues with face masks. The first is that those who regularly rely on lip-reading are unable to see the face and thus are unable to communicate well. Very few hearing people can speak sign language. American Sign Language relies on facial expressions to impart meaning. In tight quarters, this leaves the choice between lowering a mask and increasing the risk of infection, or being unable to have a conversation. Most people can’t read lips at a distance of six feet or more.
The second issue is that face masks muffle speech. For people who are already struggling to hear, this can make the wearer near impossible to understand. For some people with progressive hearing loss, this might be the first time they realize they have a problem.
Struggling to hear somebody wearing a mask is normal, especially if they have an unfamiliar accent. When you continuously have to ask people to repeat themselves, this could become uncomfortable/frustrating for both parties.
Alternatives to face masks may offer a solution. Transparent face masks are not widely available and indeed not being widely worn, but they are available. Ashely Lawrence, from Woodford County, Kentucky, designed a simple face mask with a transparent window that allows the mouth to be seen when communicating. Simple yet very useful and free for anyone who needs one.
Face shields are sometimes worn as an alternative, and also solve the problem, but again have not been widely adopted. These shields are often used by medical professionals to aid in communication and reduce anxiety.
Other solutions include using smartphone apps to communicate, using tablets, and carrying flash cards. Many with a hearing loss have taken to carrying a card or printout that informs others they have a hearing problem.
The Deaf/Hard of Hearing Technology Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center has created a comprehensive list of tools to aid communication during this time.
The issue is a complicated one, and with mask mandates likely to last at least well into the fall, the problems for people with hearing loss remain.
We Can Help
If you or a loved one are finding that now everyone is wearing face masks, you can’t hear them; then, this may indicate you need to get a hearing assessment done.
Modern hearing aids are discreet and help you get around the problem of everyone “mumbling” through their masks. Some hearing problems may also be completely treatable (in fact, it may be as simple as a buildup of earwax).
A comprehensive hearing assessment will help determine the extent and cause of a hearing loss so that the proper next steps can be taken. We are taking adequate precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as asking people to reschedule if sick, using hand sanitizer, and thoroughly cleaning sound booths and other areas between patients.