Clear Mask, Clear Communication
Have you been having a harder time communicating since masks became mandatory in public places? Has it been difficult to hear mask-muffled speech? Do you feel yourself speaking more loudly or asking people to repeat themselves more often? You’re not alone, but you’re also experiencing something those with hearing loss have been dealing with their whole lives. Struggling to communicate is a constant for people with hearing loss and face coverings – while important for public health – has amplified the difficulty.
Amy Parsons, a 35-year-old recreation therapy worker, has dealt with profound hearing loss – near deafness – since she was 18 months old. She and her family worked hard to learn how to cope. She’s learned how to speak, and with her hearing aids and a cochlear implant, has lived a confident, independent life. Her autonomy and morale was shaken, however, when masks became mandatory a few weeks back.
A Physical Barrier
All the skills Amy had learned – from picking up on non-verbal cues and facial expressions, to reading lips – were so much harder once everyone’s face was behind a mask. That’s why she’s advocating for more people to wear clear masks when shopping, working, and going about daily life.
“The corona virus situation didn’t affect my lifestyle. My lifestyle is pretty lowkey. I work. I’m kind of a homebody. The biggest thing with the corona virus for me was the mask wearing,” Amy says. “I was doing fine up until August 24 when masks were made mandatory. That’s when I got a little bit of anxiety, I guess. Every store that I go to I’m going to encounter this. Before it was here and there and I can get by with that.”
I’m Hard of Hearing
Since the mandatory order, Amy has had to have a lot more support; having her mother come to the bank with her to make changes to her accounts, having a friend join her to buy a new couch because making a big purchase without understanding what’s going on is a bad idea. She’s even struggled at grocery stores with particularly chatty cashiers.
“I am finding myself saying that. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m hard of hearing.’ They may have to pull their masks down or you might have to write something down or that kind of thing,” she says. “I’ve had years of practice doing that. Being prepared. A lot of other people may not have that practice, and they don’t know what to expect. They get tensed up, they get frustrated, or they get left out, and they leave and cry.”
Heard it Through the Grapevine
Amy recently met with the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association of Newfoundland and Labrador to get some more support due to some issues communicating at work. They gave her a clear mask and it’s made her interactions with others more interesting.
“I wore it to WalMart and I did get a couple looks, but I had two different ladies who stopped me and said, ‘What is that? That would be wonderful. I know people who are hard of hearing who would benefit from this,’” she says, adding that an interaction in her doctors’ office was also encouraging. A woman across from her in the waiting room was poking her husband saying he needed people to wear a clear mask because he can’t hear anything. Even her doctor realized a clear mask might be more effective when treating patients.
“Some people were like, ‘What is she wearing? You can see her mouth.’ But you can also see a smile. It’s a mix of feelings there. People are not used to it, but people think it’s great.”
Word Of Mouth
But it’s not people with hearing loss who should be wearing a clear mask, it’s the rest of the public who need to be aware of how difficult it is to communicate.
“My girlfriends are asking me why everyone is sharing posts about the clear masks with you on Facebook, because it’s not you that’s got to wear it. It’s everyone else,” Amy laughs.
Statistics Canada reports an estimated 4.6 million adults in Canada have at least mild hearing loss in the speech-frequency range. The same report talks about the extreme fatigue people with hearing loss report as a result of the more intense concentration required to lip read, pick up on non-vrbal cues, and process verbal information.
“Seniors, even though they may not realize it, if their hearing is a little less, but they’re struggling,” Amy says, adding young kids and people with disabilities are also having a hard time. “I’m hard of hearing, but we have a whole range of people who may not hear as well, who are deaf, who can’t speak, who can’t hear, that kind of thing, who have no other support, and lean on reading lips.”
Getting the Message Out
Amy has been advocating for clear masks and so is the association. The Provincial office in Mount Pearl is helping by selling clear face masks and lending out technology solutions to those who need them.
“At this time, it is important to keep people safe while still creating a hearing accessible environment. Clear face masks allow individuals to see facial expressions and lip movements, an essential part of lipreading and understanding speech for anyone with hearing challenges,” says Alison Butler, co-ordinator of education and awareness at the association. “Communication is essential to our daily lives – interactions with store staff, medical professionals, teachers, community members – many people are being excluded from important communication and It’s our goal to help support and provide access to hearing accessibility with simple tools like clear masks.”
In the meantime, Amy is encouraging people to be their own advocates when clear masks aren’t available.
“Don’t be afraid of saying I’m having a hard time understanding you,” she says. “I had to learn this myself last week. We’re going to have to step outside the box and do things differently, no matter how much learning we’ve done before.”
For Amy this means having a support person with her, maybe asking people to pull down their masks and stepping back to create six feet of distance, having things written down, and using speech-to-text when needed. For hearing people, she suggests speaking as clearly as possible, reducing or eliminating background noise, and to avoid yelling – it doesn’t help her understand.
“What better time to advocate and stand up for yourself than now? A lot of people are willing to be kind and understand the issue,” Amy says. “Even though they may not understand your issue, they understand how much covid has impacted a lot of people.”
To Get Your Clear Mask
Learn more about the masks available for purchase at the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association – Newfoundland and Labrador (CHHA-NL) and help support clear communication throughout the pandemic and beyond.
Two clear mask styles are available to purchase from the CHHA-NL including a limited use style and a locally made, washable fabric style.