people on a train wearing face masks

Making communication clear when your face mask isn’t

By Jeanette Blom

Together with our partnering patient organizations, the Ida Institute has launched a resource with advice for communicating when using face masks. The resource is based on content developed by the Danish Association of the Hard of Hearing and is endorsed by our partners who have collaborated with us on adapting the content for an international audience. 

The resource comes at a time when face masks are becoming mandatory around the world in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 virus, adding an additional layer of difficulty to the communication challenges experienced by people with hearing loss. 

A world harder to hear and interpret

Speaking with our patient organization partners recently about some of the challenges COVID-19 presents for their members around the world, it quickly became clear that communication with people wearing face masks was a top concern.

Face masks have been recommended or required in almost every country battling the coronavirus. But while masks protect us from COVID-19, they also make communication exceedingly difficult for people with hearing loss. Many rely on lipreading and facial expressions to help pick up words and phrases they may otherwise miss in a conversation. Masks take away these visual clues that people with hearing loss use to communicate.

“Masks have complicated hearing. Even though I don’t lip read well at all, the inability to see faces to judge the mood and the seriousness and intent of the speaker is a problem,” explains Russell Misheloff, a member of the Hearing Loss Association of America, who has had a moderate to severe hearing loss for the past 25 years. 

Dr. Roger Wicks, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action on Hearing Loss, UK, confirms. “We're hearing a huge number of reports of anxiety and stress for many people. It's the prospect of a world that's even harder to hear and interpret,” he says.

Face masks and hospitals: the dual challenge 

One of the spaces where masks are both of vital importance and pose a particular challenge for people with hearing loss is in hospitals – a challenge Misheloff has experienced himself.

“A few months ago I became ill and visited a hospital emergency room. My wife brought me, but she was not allowed to be with me in the waiting room to provide support and help with communications with staff and medical personnel, who all wore masks. I spent a couple of hours there and it seemed endless, and then several more hours undergoing tests. All the staff I interacted with were helpful when I told them about my hearing difficulty and ways they could best communicate with me. But it was an exhausting experience,” he recalls. 

Campaigning for clear masks

As wearing masks become normalized, there is a growing awareness of the difficulty they can pose for some. Our patient organization partners are working hard to make sure people, businesses, and governments understand the need for alternatives to standard PPE such as clear masks, which have the obvious advantage of making it possible to see the mouth of the person speaking. 

To unlock the potential of clear face masks, however, requires that they are recommended for use by national health authorities, widely accepted, affordable, and available in sufficient supply. “Unless everybody is wearing them, at the grocery store and everywhere else, it will not solve the problem,” says Barbara Kelley, Executive Director of the HLAA.

Another problem with clear masks is their tendency to fog up – a problem some say can be helped by putting soap on the transparent mouth piece and rinsing it before use, just like scuba divers do. As reported by Wired, the COVID-19 crisis has also given impetus to the development by startups of new innovative solutions such as smart face masks that can record conversations and transcribe them into text, or masks that make LED lights form into a smile with a click of the tongue. But such alternatives still seem part of a futuristic scenario. 

Campaigning for clear masks has therefore become an important focus for patient organizations around the world. HLAA recently held a webinar about masks and wrote to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), encouraging them to educate people about clear masks. The CDC then added to the CDC guidelines that an alternative mask for people who need to lip read and get visual cues could be clear masks. 

In the UK, Action on Hearing Loss has been lobbying to make sure clear masks are introduced more widely in the health sector. “We persuaded the government to procure some clear masks from the US. A limited number have arrived and we convinced them to make sure they are used in health settings,” says Wicks. 

While clear masks are becoming increasingly available, there is still a lot of work to do in terms of raising awareness about the specific challenges encountered by people with hearing loss in the time of COVID-19. The hope is that the new resource will support people with hearing loss around the world and help draw attention to the things that people can do to improve communication when wearing face masks. 

While waiting for the COVID-19 fog to clear, Misheloff has this advice for others: “Relax; try to be patient; and advocate assertively for yourself. Explain not only that you have a problem, but help the people you communicate with understand how they can help you.” 

Download the resource here.