Staying sane and connected in COVID

By Gael Hannan

It’s hard to find an upside to the chaos of 2020. The world’s pandemic and politics seem to have set the world spinning in another direction. 

And in this crazy, abnormal world, people with hearing loss have encountered another shock; dealing with facemasks has shot many of us back to the time before we had learned to cope well with our hearing issues. Every day, we are challenged trying to process the words behind the masks – words that we hear but can’t discriminate.

A return to bluff-smile-and-nod

For many people, the simple face covering, exacerbated by a lack of strong self-advocacy skills, has meant a return to bluff-smile-and-nod and get-the-heck-out-of-the-store. We find ourselves once again having to depend on family or friends to translate for us. It’s not that we don’t appreciate their help, but we’ve worked hard to adopt the hearing technology and positive attitudes that give us control over our own communication.

Communicating also takes a lot more energy these days. One woman wrote, “I feel like I did before I got my cochlear implant. I’m exhausted!”

The mother of invention

But there has been an upside to the restricted interactions in these unsettling times. The old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention”, has given people with hearing loss some wonderful new options. Virtual platforms, ASR (Automated Speech Recognition), clear masks and face shields – all of these existed before the onset of COVID, but now they are repurposed as golden gifts to people with hearing loss.   

Clear masks, which the hearing loss community has been crying out for, have steadily improved throughout the pandemic. They allow speechreading, although many have the unfortunate effect of fogging up or making us look like vampires. Face shields are also popping up everywhere, giving us 100% of the face to speechread! 

Speech-to-text apps that use ASR have turned our smartphones into superb translation tools. When talking to a speech-muffled, masked person, holding the phone towards the speaker’s face will provide understandable text translation of the conversation. Sometimes it comes out perfectly. Sometimes, especially with background noise, some of the words are mistranslated, but the overall message usually comes through.

A non-technical bit of advocacy: I believe there are times when it’s appropriate to ask: “Hi, I have a severe hearing loss and I can’t understand you. Since we’re standing 6 feet (2 metres) apart, would you mind…?” I illustrate this request by first waving in the direction of my ears and then at the person’s mask. Only once has this request failed when the salesperson continued to speak without lowering the mask. Perhaps she was saying: “I’m not allowed to!”, but all I could do was look at her stonily. We completed the transaction and I left, still not knowing what she actually said. Usually, however, the person accommodates me, and our communication is completed in a safe manner.

Let's zoom tonight

The other source of joy is the virtual meeting. I’m in awe of how technology has allowed us to meet virtually with good optics and sound. Work meetings, small groups of all sorts, churches, choirs, conferences, family games and celebrations, and many other events can still happen, helping us to stay sane during this time of COVID.

“Zoom” has become a generic term for a virtual meeting, just as “Kleenex” is the generic term for all brands of tissue. “Zoom” is even used as a verb (“let’s zoom tonight”). But, at time of writing, Zoom is not the platform of choice for many people with hearing loss, because it offers ASR captioning only at the highest, paid level of use. Other platforms such as Google Meets and Microsoft Teams offer ASR captions at no extra cost. 

Tips for virtual socializing

When a virtual family gathering has been scheduled for Zoom by your auntie on the other side of the country, there are ways to make the meeting accessible:

  • Stream the event to your hearing devices. Your relatives’ voices will be close in your ear, making you feel closer to them
  • If not streaming to your devices, use your smartphone’s speech-to-text app to pick up the sound from the device you’re using for the virtual meeting
  • For best possible speechreading, ask every participant to keep their face well-lit and as close to the camera as possible
  • Watch in “Speaker View”
  • Each participant should remain muted until their turn to speak, otherwise, you will hear every background sound in your cousin’s house
  • Appointing a moderator, even for family gatherings, helps keep the conversation flowing freely without “over-talk”
  • Limiting the number of participants to make it easier for people to join in

Staying connected in a holiday season

Staying connected is important for our well-being, especially in holiday seasons. Our emotions are running high in this time of pandemic, with many people feeling more mentally fragile than before. To combat the stress, we should focus on activities that can stimulate our happy mode. Put up the lights and decorate. Play boardgames with people in our social bubbles, or online. We have started playing Hearts online with our son and his partner to stay connected (and to win—we’re a competitive bunch.) 

Get outside to walk or run and to breathe air free from indoor stuffiness. If you have streaming devices, a walking partner can wear a transmitter that streams to your hearing aid, which relieves you from having to read lips in sideways-view while walking forward.

Stay connected, stay safe. 2021 is around the corner!