Hearing Loss and the Pandemic: One Year Later

One year ago, most of us first experienced the reality known as COVID-19 life. The school where I work shifted to remote work operations at that time. For two months, I worked from home using all kinds of technology to keep in touch with my colleagues, parents, and students. Then we shifted back to in-person work two months later. That is when my world as a hard of hearing person turned upside down.

Hello Face Masks, Goodbye Lip Reading

I have been working in person since May 18, 2020. My school adopted many sanitation and safety protocols to keep everyone as healthy as possible. This included additional cleaning measures, social distancing in our classrooms, and the addition of face masks. The latter safety precaution is what made my world more complicated, stressful, and challenging.

I tried using my hearing aids and residual hearing to attempt to understand what people were saying to me behind their face masks. That proved to be impossible. So then I began to explore various technologies that could assist me with hearing people. This included FM systems, mobile phone captioning apps, and real-time transcription on my laptop. Still, I continued to miss much of what people were saying to me because I could not see what was being communicated to me.

As a lip-reader, I lost most of the ability to understand spoken language when face masks became the new normal. Thirty to 40 percent of what I understand in speech comes from lip-reading the person speaking. I knew that I had to find a way to bridge this communication gap at work.

Lip Reading Advocacy Begins

I went to both of my supervisors to share with them all of the research I had compiled about clear face masks. Not only were clear face masks difficult to source, but many people did not believe that they would protect others from the COVID-19. So at first it was an uphill journey trying to convince others that clear face masks were a vital accommodation for my work life. Within a few weeks of advocating, transparent masks became more readily available through various online retailers, such as Amazon and Etsy. A person in my community began to sew and sell clear face masks, with a portion of the proceeds going to organizations that serve the deaf and hard of hearing. This is ultimately the person from whom I began ordering clear face masks for people who communicate with me. I went from being able to understand about 10 percent of what people said to me while wearing non-clear face masks, to understanding 90 percent or more of what people said while wearing clear face masks. My school purchased more of these masks so that anyone who communicates with me could wear one. It made my work experience a lot less stressful because I could better understand what people were saying to me.

Tips from a Lip Reading Mom in a COVID-19 World

What I have learned works with communication is a bit of trial and error. I have tried the following accommodations in various forms and with mixed results:

-Phone captioning apps. I have tried all kinds of captioning apps, and right now the one that works best for me is called Ava, which I have installed on my mobile phone.

-Non-fog clear face masks. I have found that clear face masks work best with one on one conversations.

-Assistive technology. This includes Bluetooth that connects my phone to my hearing aids. Having this capability allows me to have bilateral, clear sound in my hearing devices that are programmed to provide greater speech clarity.

What Works for You

What lessons have you learned during the pandemic when it comes to communication? I would like to read your comments.

13 thoughts on “Hearing Loss and the Pandemic: One Year Later

  1. Wonderful face mask! Add plexiglass barriers along with the cloth face masks and communication is next to impossible. Frustrating!! I’m retired and don’t have to be out much, so my coping technique is avoidance!
    I think the clear masks would also be helpful for anyone who interacts with young children. They need the support from facial cues, such as seeing your smile. Keep up the good fight!!

    • Hi Kathleen, thank you for your kind words. Yes, that is a very good point about clear face masks being valuable when working with children. It is so much easier for me to be able to lip read someone if I can see their mouth. Keep advocating!

  2. I was diagnosed with SSHL back in 2012. I now have moderate to severe hearing loss. My audiogram looks like a smiley face. Speech Recognition Score is around 80%. I currently wear Resound Linx2’s as they closely process sound the way I remember pre SSHL. I never realized it, but I was supplementing my understanding of speech by unconsciously lip reading. Like you, the pandemic has really made me struggle to “hear” what other’s are saying, especially in large conference rooms. I have to really concentrate. Glad to see your school has accommodated. It’s now 1+ year into this mess and I so wish to get back to norm.

    • Hi Jeff, thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving your comments. I know that this pandemic has taken a toll on many of us with hearing loss, due to the fact that face masks are the new normal. Someday we will look back on this and realize what all we had to overcome in order to be able to engage in communication. I wish you the very best in the coming months.

  3. I’m so glad you continue to advocate for those who suffer with hearing loss. Even if a person has perfect hearing, the voice is often muffled behind a cloth mask. And the added advantage of these clear masks is that we can actually see people smile! Keep up the good work!

  4. What a challenge! Thank you for telling us how you overcame it. I would have been exhausted from the effort of trying to hear with face masks all day. Are there brands of transparent masks that you like better than others? Do they have behind-the-ear loops, i.e. are you also dealing with your hearing aids being pulled off? Masks are bad with my hearing aid and impossible with my cochlear implant, which is larger. I can’t wear the CI and a mask unless I have a hat or scarf tightly wrapped around my head. I too rely on handheld captioning — sometimes AVA but more often Otter. Others also really like Google Live Transcribe.

    • Hi Katherine, those are all very good questions. In regards to your question about where I acquired clear face masks, I found a local person in the Kansas City area who creates and distributes the masks from her home in Missouri. I would be happy to share her contact information if you could provide me with a private email address. As for your second question, I do use ear loops. They can be tricky with my BTE heading aids, but I have gotten used to them. You might consider a neck extender that fits behind your neck and where the mask loops can attach. There are several neck extenders I have found on Amazon. Please let me know if you would like more details about the clear masks I have acquired.

      • Thanks. I just ordered a mask that ties back. The problem is not my hearing aid — it’s small enough. But my cochlear implant (plus my glasses) takes up a huge amount of space behind my smallish ear. I do have clear masks. I just don’t regularly communicate with anyone that I could give them to. I hear pretty well one-on-one, and Otter completes the task.
        The one place I’d really have liked to be able to hand out clear masks was when my husband was sick last fall. But I don’t think the medical personnel would have felt comfortable accepting the masks. We really need them to be part of the medical supply chain.

  5. I had not given a thought to lip reading until your article. I love those clear masks. It would be nice if they were all made that way.
    I tried to reblog this, but the button did nothing. I did put it on Facebook.

    • Thank you for sharing my blog post. I am not sure why it did not reblog though. I think that WordPress has modified some accessibility changes recently that might impact the shareability. I am so glad that you are a fan of the clear masks. Let’s all keep advocating!

  6. Katherine – I agree with you. I know that the Ford Company is developing clear N-95 face masks, which would provide the same Covid protection as a non-transparent N-95 mask. That is a step in the right direction that would be a huge benefit to the medical community.

  7. You have rightly highlighted the struggles of deaf people in this COVID world.

    With everyone putting the masks on, lip-reading becomes difficult.

    You have given some useful tips for all hard-of-hearing friends!

    Great job!

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