Improving Communication in the Era of Face Masks

Wearing face masks helps prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but for people with hearing loss, they pose communications challenges. This includes muffled speech, the inability to read lips, and difficulty wearing masks for people who use behind-the-ear hearing aids.

At our Anchorage, Alaska, practice, patients with hearing loss often describe these challenges in addition to others associated with wearing masks. In this blog post, we’ll provide some tips that you can share with family and friends to help bridge these unique communication challenges.

How Has the Pandemic Affected Communication?

Even though people with hearing loss are most affected by the pandemic when it comes to communication, social interaction between everyone has changed because of the pandemic. Nearly all of us have probably experienced a situation in which we asked someone wearing a mask to repeat what they said.

It doesn’t appear that the situation—or the roadblocks to effective communication posed by the pandemic—will end soon. These challenges include:

  • Wearing masks reduces volume and clarity when speaking.
  • Protective barriers (such as plexiglass at store check-out counters or a doctor’s office) and social distancing make it harder to hear.
  • Inability to see lips covered by masks for people who rely on reading lips.
  • Lack of visual cues (smiling, frowning, etc.) to determine the speaker’s emotions.

Research shows that cloth and surgical face masks reduce the clarity of speech and lower it by about 5 decibels (dB). In other words, speech is not just quieter, but it is also more muffled. Simply asking people to speak louder may not help you understand what they’re saying, especially if you wear hearing aids. Adjusting your hearing aids may be a more effective solution.

Additionally, people who wear behind-the-ear hearing aids may have problems wearing face masks that loop over the ears. If that’s the case, you may want to wear masks with fabric ties rather than plastic loops or wear masks that clasp at the neck (similar to gaiters). It’s also important to carefully remove masks to avoid accidentally yanking out your hearing aids.

What Are Some Solutions?

Improving communication for everyone during the pandemic will involve patience and a commitment to problem-solving. It’s important to remember that in the U.S., approximately 15% of adults report trouble hearing. Some people with hearing loss—which varies in degree—may fear a loss of independence because they need to rely on the assistance of others to communicate effectively.

If you wear hearing aids and are a patient of one of our ENT doctors in Anchorage, scheduling an appointment to discuss your concerns is one option. An audiologist may be able to adjust your devices if needed. Some hearing aids even have “mask mode.”

Clear masks are a potential solution. Few people currently wear them, but the Ford Motor Company recently announced that it has designed a low-cost, reusable clear mask to help people with hearing impairments be better able to read lips. Clear masks also allow people to see the full range of human expression and help improve communication overall. A patent is pending for the masks, which are also certified to N95 standards of virus protection.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) offers a comprehensive list of best practices to help individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing communicate during the pandemic.

If you’re interested in scheduling an appointment to discuss your specific needs, contact us using the online form or call us at (907) 279-8800.