Lacking Lipreading: How Masks Disadvantage the Hearing Impaired

How the community can help the hearing impaired during COVID-19.

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A woman uses a see-through face mask designed for deaf or hard of hearing people.

Shelby Hansen, Writer

In the midst of a global pandemic, change is inevitable. The world as we know it is gone, and every day, it seems that there is a new development. However, many of these changes provide a barrier for people with disabilities. Since the start of the pandemic, masks prevent people with hearing loss from communicating easily in their everyday life. Studies show that this is connected to the delayed travel of soundwaves from the mouth to the ear and the inability to lipread. 

Many of the hearing impaired depend on lipreading to effectively communicate. With masks covering people’s mouths, they can no longer rely on lipreading. A certain type of face mask exists that is made of transparent material, but they are not widely available to the public. Similarly, some people use transparent face shields, but the public has not adopted this solution yet. Instead, those with hearing loss must try their best to hear what they can. 

For those who don’t have hearing loss, it can already be difficult to hear what someone is saying with a mask on. Face masks make voices distorted and unclear when we talk because the soundwaves are forced to pass through the cloth before they can go to the ear. This can make voices sound softer and more muffled than the natural sound of a voice. For people with hearing loss, communicating in these conditions is mentally exhausting. Often, hearing loss is associated with poor social interactions, isolation, depression, anxiety and other negative factors that come with a difficult time communicating. 

Because American Sign Language (ASL) isn’t a widely known language by most people, it can be much harder to communicate. However, there are still ways to help the hearing impaired while wearing a face mask. 

Tips to Use When Communicating With Someone Who Is Hard-of-Hearing:

  • Use visual cues to signal someone or get their attention
  • Speak loudly and do not mumble. Avoid shouting, over-emphasizing or exaggerating your words because that may make them less discernible.
  • Gesture, if possible.
  • Write out what you are trying to say.
  • Ask them what would help them.
  • Be patient with them.
  • Do not speak to them while walking.
  • Learn basic conversation phrases in ASL

These tips will help to improve the communication and mental health of those with hearing problems, and they are helpful to those who have able ears as well. Using these tips, society can properly social distance while still being courteous to each other and accommodating those who do not have what others do.