Masks, social distancing make communication harder for those with hearing loss

Face shields, masks with clear centre marketed to help people who rely on lip reading

For people in the deaf or hard of hearing communities the pandemic has created additional challenges for communication.

Alexandria McGarva, who is hard of hearing, has stopped going to public places she’s unfamiliar with because of the additional struggles created by social distancing and wearing a mask.

McGarva, who is also the director of the young adult network for the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, can only hear people from about a metre away, so keeping the six feet between her and other people as mandated by social distancing regulations makes communicating even more “anxiety-inducing.”

READ ALSO: BC Ferries passengers must now bring masks, face coverings for longer trips

“[While in the grocery store lineup] I kept dropping stuff and another customer said something and I couldn’t understand,” she says, adding that she could only use the top half of the other customer’s face to try to decipher what was said. “I was like I think she’s laughing or said a funny joke, so we laughed together but I have no idea what she said.”

Victoria Audiologist Edward Storzer in the Island Deaf and Hard of Hearing clinic sitting outside the sound booth. Plexiglas separates him from clients and he wears a shield so clients can see his full face during their appointment. (Provided by Kristi Falconer)
Victoria Audiologist Edward Storzer in the Island Deaf and Hard of Hearing clinic sitting outside the sound booth. Plexiglas separates him from clients and he wears a shield so clients can see his full face during their appointment. (Provided by Kristi Falconer)

Kristi Falconer, communications manager for the Island Deaf and Hard of Hearing Centre, says there are a few solutions to the issue.

“Things like the shields that are all clear … those are ideal,” she says, adding that’s what staff at IDHHC wear. “That allows the individual to be able to see the mouth, see the whole facial expressions and be able to get that communication that they need to be able to piece together spoken word.”

READ ALSO: Dispose of your face masks safely, top doctor urges Canadians

Another option being marketed are masks that have a clear plastic cover over the mouth so people can lip read.

McGarva has mixed opinions about those but thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

“Lipreading is only a small aspect of what I do to understand what I hear, most is reading the rest of the face,” she says. “… Things like how big the mask window is, glare, how crumpled it is and how much fabric blocks the face affects my perspective – the less fabric, the bigger the window, the better.”

McGarva hopes businesses especially take her message to heart because “you really only get one chance.” She says one of the main reasons she goes to a limited number of places because she feels like the staff at said places have the”patients to communicate with her.”

“It’s important for businesses to not over think things and for staff to relax and not show frustration,” she says, adding that her colleague at the Association put together a letter to business owners with a number of suggestions on how to be more accessible.


 

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