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.