Hearing loss reaches beyond communication problems and contributes to other physical and mental health problems, which include depression and anxiety, reduced social interaction or isolation, and can add to the risk of dementia. Additional consequences include a decreased quality of life and independence, which places strains on families and relationships. Because the WHO estimates that about 1.33 billion people around the globe endure some form of hearing loss, the combination of hearing loss and facemasks presents us with a global challenge. As an advocate for better hearing health in Lubbock and all across the South Plains, I think it is essential to understand the obstacles facemasks create for those with hearing loss and suggest several ways to help.
The Challenge Behind Facemasks
Facemask mandates during the pandemic have created an additional global challenge for those with hearing loss. Two main elements of communication are limited or eliminated by covering our mouths, creating significant communication challenges for those with hearing loss, as well as those who can hear just fine.
Reliance on Visual Cues
Visual cues are more important for communication than most are aware of. Our facial expressions and lip movements are an integral component in understanding what others are saying during a conversation. Though we all rely on these non-verbal cues, those with hearing loss often depend more heavily upon these visual cues to make up for hearing impairment. Also, those with severe hearing loss or deafness have to see the speaker’s mouth for lip-reading. Because facemasks cover the mouth, they block these non-verbal and visual cues, cutting off clear communication.
To hear speech and sounds clear requires an uninterrupted flow of sound waves from the source of the sound through the hearing pathway and into the brain for processing, identification, and understanding. The face turned away, a hand over the mouth or a facemask impedes the flow of sound waves. Even a person with excellent hearing experiences reduced sound clarity that is a similar effect as wearing a pair of earmuffs. Muffled sound or speech from behind a facemask is a particularly critical problem for those with hearing loss, because it further reduces sound clarity, leading to difficulties in distinguishing between consonants, whole words, or entire phrases during a conversation.
Stepping Up to the Challenge
For the sake of the hard of hearing, and to maintain clear communication for all requires stepping up to meet challenges. Both those with hearing loss and those without need to be aware of four communication tips to help overcome facemask challenges.
Slow Down/Speak Up
Though not as big of a problem among Texans, many people talk too fast and fail to project their voices. This causes words and phrases to run together and become indistinguishable, especially when speech is muffled. Slowing down and speaking up will help improve communication.
Greater Consciousness of Your Environment
All of us need to become more aware of the conditions of the environment where we are engaging in conversation. Eliminating background noises or moving to a quieter place will help those with hearing loss or those without, sort out the critical elements of a conversation from the surrounding noise.
Make Use of Tools and Apps
The development of various communication tools and smartphone apps has come at a critical time. Apps that work as a microphone and amplification system can help push muffled sounds past facemasks, while text to speech apps can translate speech into text, which the listener can read.
Provide Visual Cues
Various companies and individuals have designed facemasks with a transparent screen over the mouth so that the hearing impaired can see the speaker’s mouth.
Though difficult for the general public to get their hands on, healthcare workers, those who work with the elderly, and those who work with the deaf should look into using these innovative masks.
Cornerstone Audiology Is Your Hearing Health Advocate
Our failure to take into account those with hearing loss will further isolate them and contribute to a reduced quality of life throughout the pandemic unless we make a conscious effort to change how we communicate.
A concerted effort to use all available solutions for better communication should become a priority.
The team and I at the Cornerstone Audiology are your better hearing health advocates. We use our passion and resources to help improve communication for the hearing impaired.
If you or a loved one is struggling to hear clearly, give us a call at 806.687-4327, contact us online for more communication tips and tools, or schedule a comprehensive hearing assessment, which includes our specialized safety protocols.