Even though the World Health Organization did not support the wearing of face masks early on, and their use remains controversial, face mask mandates have become a part of what many might label as the “new normal.” Given the steep fines associated with failure to comply with government mandates, we seem to be stuck with them. As an audiologist, I am particularly concerned with the challenges presented by face masks for those who are hard of hearing.

Understanding the Challenge

According to the WHO, there are 466 million people globally with hearing loss and 34 million children.

Besides creating communication difficulties, hearing loss contributes to isolation, depression, anxiety, reduced social interaction, an increased risk of dementia, and an overall decline in independence and quality of life. Face masks are exacerbating this issue even further due to several factors.

Muffled Voices

When someone has their hand, a piece of cloth or other covering over their mouth, it blocks the passage of droplets of moist air and impedes sound waves. Even to individuals who have perfectly normal hearing, the effect is the equivalent of wearing earmuffs. The interruption of these sound waves makes it difficult to distinguish between various consonants while whole words, phrases, or sentences are lost entirely for those who are hard of hearing.

No Visual Cues

Many individuals who are hard of hearing rely on visual cues or non-verbal expressions. Those with moderate to severe hearing loss may also rely on reading the person’s lips to decipher what their ears cannot pick up. With most of the face covered by a mask, these visual cues disappear, leaving individuals with a hearing loss a limited means of understanding conversation.

Seeking Solutions

Individuals who communicate using sign language are ahead of the game in some aspects. However, sign language includes extensive training, and so few individuals outside the deaf community use it, limiting it as a viable solution. It is also incredibly challenging to sign without touching your face.

As the public learns to deal with the communication limitations of face masks, we need to make a conscious effort to seek real-world solutions. Some communication techniques and communication tools with the potential to help include:

  • Amplification – Various amplification apps can turn your smartphone into a microphone with amplifying potential to bridge the gap in communication.
  • Speech to Text – Additional applications that provide communication assistance include speech-to-text apps, which translate speech in real-time, which the listener can read on their smartphone.
  • Lip Visibility Face masks – Those regularly engaged with the hard of hearing have worked at developing a type of facemask with a transparent area to expose the speaker’s lips.
  • Reducing Background Noise – Eliminating/reducing background noise when communicating should become common practice during this time.
  • Slow Down/Speak Up – Rapid low-volume speech is pretty standard. We need to become more aware of how difficult it is for others to understand us when our faces are covered and make a conscious effort to slow down and speak up.

SLENT Hearing and Balance Center Is Eager to Help

The “new normal” of wearing face masks has created some significant communication challenges for all of us, but more so on those who are hard of hearing. 

Greater awareness of the challenges and a concerted effort to use various tools and techniques provide viable communication solutions for everyone. 

The team and I at SLENT Hearing and Balance Center are eager to help facilitate better communication for those with hearing loss. From remote hearing aid adjustments to apps and techniques, we aim to keep our patients informed of the technologies and practices available to make life easier.

If you or a loved one has been struggling or complaining that others are mumbling, contact us to schedule a comprehensive hearing assessment. If you require further assistance, please call us at 985-273-5795.

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Dr. JJ Martinez, AuD, FAAA

J.J. was born in Wichita, KS, and was brought up in a Marine Corps family. Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the Marine Corps after high school and was stationed in Camp Lejeune, NC. After going to college at Southeastern Louisiana University, he went to graduate school and got his doctorate degree from Louisiana State University Health Science Center in New Orleans, LA. Soon after, he started his career in audiology and became board certified in Audiology.