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 several issues with face masks:
- Obscured facial expressions. Those who regularly rely on lip-reading cannot see the face and thus are unable to communicate well. In tight quarters, this leaves the choice between lowering a mask and increasing the risk of transmission or being unable to have a conversation. Most people can’t read lips at a distance of six feet or more.
- Muffled speech. For people who are already struggling to hear, this can make the wearer near impossible to understand.
- Blocked Sounds. Face masks block certain high-frequency sounds. For example, when you wear a face mask, the listener will have a more challenging time hearing consonant sounds like “f,” “s,” “sh,” and “th.”
- Discomfort. If you wear behind-the-ear hearing aids or have a cochlear implant, face masks can be very uncomfortable.
If you are wearing a hearing aid or an implant that sits behind your ears, a face mask with ear loops might be uncomfortable or interfere with your hearing aid.
Use a mask extender, a strap that sits at the back of your head or neck, which you can fasten the loops of the face mask to instead of using your ears to secure them.
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, and continuously asking people to repeat themselves can become uncomfortable and frustrating for both parties.
Solutions to Assist Communication
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. Medical professionals often use these shields to aid in communication and reduce anxiety.
- Technology. 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.
Tips for communicating with face masks:
- Get the listener’s attention before speaking. You can wave to them or call their name.
- Face each other directly. Don’t speak while facing to the side, and make sure there is nothing between you.
- Talk a bit louder than you usually would so your voice carries through the mask, but don’t shout.
- Talk a little slower than you usually would. Speaking slowly gives the person you are talking to a chance to ask for clarification if they didn’t understand everything you’ve said.
- Use body language and expressive hand gestures. These non-verbal cues will help overcome the limitations of not seeing facial expressions.
- Stop often to make sure you’re conversation is being followed. Repeat keywords, rephrase what you said, or write down the critical points you’re trying to communicate. It is useful to carry a note of your requirements prepared ahead of time if you know you will be in a noisy environment.
- Reduce background noise. Background noise will make it even harder to hear. If it is in your control, turn off radios, TVs, kitchen appliances, etc. – Anything that could interfere with your conversation.
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 have a hearing assessment.
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.