As mask-wearing and social distancing helps reduce the spread of COVID-19, communicating with others can prove difficult without modifications, especially when living with hearing loss.
According to Brigid Whitford, director of hearing services at the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center in Cleveland, and Helene Levenfus, owner of Cedar Audiology in Lyndhurst, individuals with hearing loss may find their ability to effectively communicate decreased.
The added layer of a mask greatly reduces the volume of speech, Whitford said, requiring those with hearing loss to further strain to understand a conversation.
“If someone is wearing a face mask, the sound coming out to the listener is reduced in volume, and different masks reduce volume differently,” she explained. “For example, an N95 mask reduces volume more than a cotton mask. Reduction in volume is going to significantly impact someone who needs more volume to hear. So, the masks are interfering and we are trying to give solutions to those with hearing loss as masks aren’t going away.”
Levenfus said issues arise with the combination of mask usage and social distancing. While the methods paired together keeps us safe, it effects the individual by dampening volume, as well as obscuring visual cues.
“Everyone lip reads a little bit, but we also look at expressions and that just adds a little bit more information when we can see someone’s face when speaking to them,” she said. “When factoring distance, it reduces the signal intensity. We say you should be within 3 feet of someone for best communication, but now we’re doubling that and it just takes away from the intensity and frequencies critical to understanding speech.”
Since visual cues are a large part of communication, Levenfus suggested hearing individuals adjust their behavior when talking to someone with hearing loss.
“Face the individual receiving your message, because if you’re turning away from them, that also increases the lack of clarity and decreases the intensity,” she said. “You can also use a clear face shield or clear vinyl masks when talking to someone with a hearing difficulty.”
Whitford had advice for creating better environments when communicating with deaf or hard of hearing individuals in the pandemic.
“Any time you can reduce background noise, do so,” she suggested. “That may mean turning off the radio in the car, turning off the TV, going to a restaurant at a quieter time or stepping into a quieter room. We also recommend people talk slowly and raise their voice a little. That doesn’t mean shouting or exaggerating, but speak clearly, slowly and with a little bit of increased volume.”
When someone doesn’t understand what you said the first time, it doesn’t help to repeat the exact phrase. Instead, rephrase the statement using different words or sounds.
“Don’t repeat things over and over, because some of the characteristics of those words may not be as hearable under a mask as they would be just changing it,” Levenfus said. “For example, ‘a quarter-to-two’ versus ‘one-forty-five,’ that kind of thing. You want to try and maximize the amount of sound getting to those individuals, and not repeating the same thing over and over. That is frustrating for everyone involved.”
As we continue through the pandemic, masks and other safety protocols aren’t going away. With that in mind, the professionals suggested being patient when wearing a mask and talking to someone with hearing loss.
“I have normal hearing, personally, and I can’t understand people either,” Levenfus said. “So, it’s key to practice patience, clarity and trying to communicate with people in the best way possible for both parties.”
Mask wearing and social distancing have also made people realize they could be suffering from hearing loss themselves, Whitford said.
“For someone who was just getting by with a little bit of hearing loss, they are noticing they are struggling more,” she said. “There are technologies available to help. Start with a hearing test and see if you have hearing loss. People with minor losses could be the ones really struggling, as this could’ve pushed them to the edge in realizing something is wrong. Recognize that we’re all under a lot of stress and if someone appears not to be able to hear, be patient.”