COVID-19 (coronavirus) Hearing

Face masks and hearing loss: Tips for supporting individuals with hearing loss during the pandemic

people with masks at pharmacy
Monica Matys
Written by Monica Matys

Face masks are an important measure in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. For Jeff and Debbie Gifford, who live with hearing loss, they say taking certain steps can help ease the process of communicating with friends, family and when out in the community and wearing a mask. Along with their otolaryngologist Dr. Vincent Lin, they offer their perspectives and tips on making conversation as seamless as possible while still staying safe.

How much do you normally lip read to communicate?

J&D: Both Debbie and I have one cochlear implant, which has changed the amount of lip reading we do. Before receiving our devices, Debbie would lip read about 90 per cent of the time, and I did about 70 per cent of the time. Since receiving our implants, however, we are forcing ourselves to rely more on our devices. That being said, lip reading is another cue that helps in difficult listening situations, and for the most part masks eliminate that visual cue.

What tips can you offer to improve communication while wearing a mask?

J&D:  There are few things to consider. Communication is a two way street after all!

For people with “normal” hearing who are speaking to a hearing impaired individual through a mask, speak slowly, a little louder than normal, and rephrase your remarks if they are not understood. It is also helpful to have easy access to a notepad and pen so you can jot things down as a last resort.

If there is a group interacting with a hearing impaired individual, make sure only one person speaks at a time. If possible, eliminate any background noise, such as turning off music or moving to a quieter area. Above all, remain patient!

From the point-of-view of the person with a hearing loss, be up front with the individual, and tell them you have a hearing loss and would appreciate them speaking a bit slower and louder. We’ve even seen masks and buttons with the words “I am hearing impaired” or something similar written on them, which we think is an excellent way to let people know you need extra help. If it is safe to do so – for example the person is behind a barrier and/or is at least 2 meters away – perhaps ask them to briefly remove their mask and repeat what they are saying. Even though there may be challenges, try to remain patient during the interaction.

If it is safe to do so, have a reliable friend or family member be present at a safe distance for the interaction to help interpret the conversation. If you are visiting a clinic or hospital, be sure to check in advance about their visitor policies.

Any other tips?

J&D: Something we hope will become more widespread is the use of accessible face masks. These masks have a transparent window where the mouth is, and would be especially beneficial in circumstances where there is a high degree of hearing loss and lip reading is necessary.

Signage can also be incredibly helpful, especially in situations where a repetitive question is being asked. For example, screening is now common before entering certain stores, so having an image or simply worded sign at the point of interaction can act as a backup if communication is difficult.

There are also various apps available that can help convert speech to text on your mobile device. These would need to be applied in a quiet space, however, to ensure proper social distancing is possible.

Dr. Lin, how are you and your team at Sunnybrook overseeing communication with patients?

Dr. Lin: Mandatory mask wearing is definitely important, and we have come up with a few solutions when challenges may arise. For those patients who have good lip-reading abilities, our clinical staff now wear special masks with a transparent window placed near the lips, as Jeff and Debbie mentioned earlier. We have also done our best to eliminate ambient and background noise in our clinic environment during patient encounters. For patients who can sign, we continue to offer access to sign language interpreters.

For patients who have new onset hearing loss and cannot read lips, we have always had the ability to type for them on our computer screens. This allows us to interact without actually having to speak.

What advice and tips would you provide for improving communication while wearing a mask?

Dr. Lin:  During these challenging times, let’s be patient and considerate of others! If there are individuals having trouble hearing you, try and find a quiet environment free of background noise and then speak slowly and clearly. Remember that hearing loss is really an invisible disability, so an ounce of kindness and consideration will go a long way

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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