Face Masks: Another Challenge For Those With Hearing Loss

Face masks and hearing loss

Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing rely on lip reading every day. But how will they do this if the UK insists everyone has to wear a face mask when outdoors?

At the moment the government is not asking people to wear face masks when outside or on public transport. But in some countries, such as Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, face masks have to be worn in certain situations. These include on public transport, supermarket shopping or in public spaces.

Extra challenges

But many people with hearing loss, especially those who have been profoundly deaf from a young age, rely on lip reading to communicate. Face masks which hide the speaker’s mouth pose extra challenges.

Charlie Swinbourne, a screenwriter, director and journalist, is the editor of the blog Limping Chicken. He lip reads and uses sign language and he told the BBC’s Cabin Fever podcast that he depends on lip reading.

“That’s a worry that I have if I had to go into intensive care, or even to go to the hospital and people were wearing masks,” he said. “People have been developing masks that you could still see the lips through. I really hope they’re still to come about, but it’s a really big issue.”

I rely on lip reading

Sign language is also very visual. Anyone who has watched a sign language interpreter will know that facial expressions are a very important part of the process.

American Mary Beth Pagnella, who has had profound hearing loss most of her life, prides herself on being an excellent lip reader.

But, amid the coronavirus outbreak, reading lips has become more difficult as more people wear face masks.

Using facial cues

“I feel so lost and out of place because people are wearing masks and I cannot read their lips,” Pagnella told USA TODAY. “Not being able to hear is hard enough. Now, lip reading is hard, too.”

Susan Griffiths is an occupational therapist at Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. She wears a hearing aid and lip reads and has written an article in Posability magazine.

She is raising awareness of the communication barrier that face masks pose to those with hearing loss and others who rely on facial expressions and facial cues for effective communication.

Relaxing the lockdown

Writing about working in a hospital where the staff are now wearing masks, Susan said: “I had seriously underestimated how much I rely on lip reading until that ability was taken away from me. As a result, I am no longer able to work directly on the wards to support my colleagues and work with patients.

“I had so many emotions running through me. Guilt that my colleagues are putting themselves at risk every single day whilst I am office bound. Frustration because I know I can do so much to help as an OT, but I can’t because the face masks prevent me from using my lip reading skills to be able to communicate effectively.”

The government is not asking people to wear face masks at the moment. But it is said to be looking at it as part of a possible way of relaxing the lockdown. Face masks will make it much harder for those who rely on lip reading but many of us use lip reading or facial cues when talking to people even if we’re not aware of it.

Read Susan Griffiths’ article here.

American student designs face masks for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Read more.

Image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay