First, let me express our clinic’s wholehearted agreement with wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing as measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, face masks have also created barriers to communication for people with hearing loss. As healthcare professionals serving the hearing loss community, we must raise awareness of the challenges people face. These are some of the difficulties the pandemic has created.
Masks Cover Visual Cues
People who have trouble hearing often use visual information to understand speech. Lip-reading and seeing facial expressions help them comprehend a speaker’s message without hearing all the words.
Anxiety Created by Face Masks
For some, losing these critical links to the hearing world has created strong emotions like anxiety. Facemasks also inspire fear in some people (maskaphobia) who will tend to avoid situations where they might meet someone wearing a facemask or give someone wearing a mask a wide-birth.
For some, this anxiety might make them withdraw or avoid going out in public. It might increase feelings of claustrophobia (a fear of being confined) and exacerbate other symptoms of anxiety, such as panic attacks, sweats, dizzy spells, or hyperventilating.
Traditionally facemasks are worn by medical professionals, which may be triggering for people who have had traumatic experiences in hospitals.
Patients currently in hospital, are often unable to hear, lip read, or read facial expressions of medical professionals wearing PPE. Anesthetist, Dr. Rachel Grimaldi, designed a series of digital flashcards (CARDMEDIC) to address these problems by transferring vital information to patients with hearing loss.
Muffled Sound Is the Norm
Face masks muffle the sounds people produce. It’s a challenge for everyone, including those of us with typical hearing. The difference for someone with hearing loss is muffled sounds are often impossible to understand. Eg. Words that sound similar but have different meanings can become challenging to tell apart.
Social Distancing Isn’t Good for Communication
Moving at least six feet away and removing the mask creates new problems. Increasing the distance between the speaker and listener makes it more challenging to lip-read and interpret facial expressions.
Sound quality decreases with distance. Under typical circumstances, we would have encouraged patients with hearing loss to move closer to the speaker when they have trouble understanding. Our patients can no longer use that strategy since it’s not compatible with social distancing.
Masks and Hearing Aids
Although many of today’s hearing aids are worn completely inside the ear, over-the-ear hearing aids are still around. It can be uncomfortable to wear a mask with ear loops and an over-the-ear hearing aid at the same time. Masks can cause an over-the-ear hearing aid to fall off, which could damage the device.
These Challenges Can Have Serious Consequences
My colleagues and I are deeply concerned about the negative impact the pandemic has on individuals with hearing loss.
We’ve learned of essential workers who are struggling in their jobs because they rely on lip-reading. Sadly, hospital patients have reported delayed treatment due to mask-related communication barriers.
In ordinary times, untreated hearing loss can lead to social isolation. Since the pandemic has broken the connections people with untreated hearing loss had to their communities, we believe the epidemic increases their risk of loneliness.
There’s Good News
Hearing loss is treatable. At our clinic, we can examine your hearing and create a treatment plan. Treating your hearing loss makes you less dependent on visual cues to communicate. The sounds you didn’t hear through masks can become comprehensible again.
If you or a loved one has been struggling or complaining that others are mumbling, it’s time to schedule a comprehensive hearing assessment. Complete the form on this page, and a member of the team will contact you to schedule your “Remote Access Audiology” appointment, or contact us at (432) 689-2220 for help, questions, or support. We’ve also continued our convenient Curbside Appointments as part of our response to COVID-19, which will be a permanent addition to our service offerings.