How Face Masks are Impeding Communication for People with Hearing Loss

Person wearing a face mask

For someone with hearing loss, a full view of their conversational partner’s face can be essential for understanding what’s being said. Even someone with partial hearing loss using a hearing aid can be thrown off if they're unable to see lips or facial expressions.

So, in this pandemic-inspired era of awareness, where everyone needs to be wearing a mask, it’s becoming a bit difficult for those with any level of hearing loss to effectively communicate with others.

The coronavirus has affected the entire world, with every country having at least a few cases. While they’re all handling it differently, almost every country is suggesting that their population wears masks.

In the US, only about a third of the population claims to be using masks as recommended. And as a lot of research regarding the virus is ongoing, the exact effectiveness of masks is still unknown – but they absolutely do help stop the spread of the virus.

Why are masks impeding communication?

What is it about masks that make communication with hearing loss so difficult? Well, a lot of people with hearing loss rely on lip-reading to gain context for what they’re hearing.

Lip reading isn’t just for the hearing-impaired. Even someone with perfect hearing takes subconscious cues from mouth shapes and lip movements – for example, “buh” and “fuh” sounds are actually very similar, and often rely on the context of the lip movements for someone to know what they’re hearing.

If you can’t believe that such a discrepancy can exist between two sounds based purely on the way someone moves their mouths, watch this video, and you might be surprised.

There's no denying that having a mask covering the entire lower half of someone’s face can impede someone’s facial recognition, slowing their speech recognition abilities.

Not only that, but when someone is wearing a mask, it’s no surprise that their speech is muffled. If you can’t see someone’s lips, you can usually rely on the clarity of their sound. But now that people have a layer of fabric over their mouths, their voice can also be a bit muffled, leading to possible further confusion.

Face Mask Mother and Son

Hearing loss is already an issue that can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, so to have these feelings compounded by mask-related difficulties is an unfortunate result of a well-intentioned action.

It’s easy to think that asking a family member to repeat themselves isn’t a big deal, since you’re probably talking in a relaxed and casual environment. But when you’re struggling to communicate with a cashier, bus driver, or medical professional, it can feel significantly more frustrating, or even embarrassing.

Clear face masks

So how can we bypass these effects? Wearing a mask is a great way to slow the spread of disease, so removing one to talk to someone is a bit counterintuitive. Instead, here are the two main options that are being discussed.

Clear-window face masks

If you’ve ever thought “they should make see-through masks so we can avoid this whole problem in the first place,” then well done! Traditional fabric masks (the kind that everyone uses to fight off COVID) can be DIY’d into having a clear window to help someone see the wearer’s mouth.

In fact, a lot of people have started making their own and selling them on websites like Etsy. If you’re shopping for one, keep in mind that they sell out pretty fast, since everyone’s trying to get their hands on one.

The only problem with this is that the clear plastic can often fog up due to the wearer’s breath, so an anti-mister will need to be added to the plastic. While these window masks haven’t been mass-produced yet, they seem to be a great addition to a surgical staple.

Faceguards

The second option is the clear faceguards you may have seen people wearing instead of masks. They look like welder’s masks, except they’re made entirely of clear plastic. Since they’re completely clear and obstruct neither the view of the mouth nor the sound being produced, they sound like the perfect solution to this problem!

The thing is, they fall a bit short when it comes to protecting against coronavirus. These face shields are definitely better than nothing, make no mistake, but since COVID is most commonly spread through water vapor exhaled via coughing or sneezing, it can still work its way around these guards and into the face.

Imagine a castle with a drawbridge and a moat. The moat is the faceguard – definitely a huge defensive advantage for any invading virus. However, if you don’t pull up the drawbridge by putting on a mask, there’s only so much the moat can hold off before the invaders inevitably get in.

Face Guard and Mask

So if the choice is between faceguard and no faceguard, obviously it’s better than nothing, but in an ideal world, you’d be using a mask and a faceguard. Then, if someone can’t hear you, you can slip the mask down for just a few seconds to say what you need to say, then put it straight back on. After all, the odds of an invader getting in while the drawbridge is down for a second or two are very low.

Some audiologists are also using a special kind of mask that you can see here. It’s like a scuba mask, but for the lower half of your face. It allows complete visibility of the mouth.

No mask at all

Be careful with this one. We don’t want to make it seem like we’re suggesting forgoing a mask entirely. We are a medical website, so we need to emphasize that wearing a mask when in populated areas is a must.

However, if you’re dropping off supplies at a relative’s house, or living with someone who has hearing loss, then as long as you know you don’t have the virus, there’s no problem in removing the mask in a controlled environment. Again, just make sure you’re not exposing them or yourself to any risk.

In the end, make sure to wear a mask!

All this to say, while masks can be a bit of an obstacle for communication, you should still do the right and smart thing and wear one. This pandemic is almost unprecedented, and will require large scale cooperation to overcome. Be safe out there!  

Duncan is an Australian-born American-raised creative writer with a passion for healthy ears. He continues to build upon his audiology qualifications with research and various courses. Duncan has been working alongside Florida-based audiologist Lindsey Banks, Au.D., to make sure that Clear Living has the most up-to-date content.

Lindsey Banks is a graduate of the Doctor of Audiology (Au.D.) program at the University of Florida. She uses her diverse experience in hearing healthcare and her passion for helping people to provide credible information to those with hearing loss who visit Clear Living.

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