Wearing a face mask has become a part of everyday life during the pandemic, but it’s posing communication problems for the hard of hearing.
According to one British safety company, lip-readers are finding it hard to understand conversations, and that cuts them out of large parts of everyday life.
With 466 million people around the world living with hearing loss, risk assessment software firm Protecting.co.uk is concerned about how face masks may impact people on a daily basis.
“People who struggle to hear often rely on visual prompts such as lip reading to get by, but this is becoming a big challenge now that more people are wearing masks,” says company spokesman Mark Hall.
“This means that a lot of people are left struggling to understand basic conversation, which could be very dangerous during a global health crisis.”
“Being deaf can feel isolating”
Over 12 million people in the UK are registered as deaf or suffer from some form of hearing loss, and many rely on facial expressions and lip reading to effectively communicate.
However, this has become even difficult, especially as wearing a face mask has been mandatory on all public transport in England since the June 15, which includes all bus, train, tram, coach, Tube, ferry, and plane travel.
“For those travelling on public transport, it’s causing a great deal of anxiety about not understanding everything that is being communicated to them,” says Protecting.co.uk spokesman Mark Hall.
“Many people get embarrassed and don’t want to be an inconvenience by repeatedly asking what you’re saying to them.”
One hearing-impaired person told us: “I rely a lot on lip patterns and expressions to understand sign language, but this has been impossible when people are wearing a mask. Being deaf can feel isolating when you have no way to understand what the people around you are saying.”
But it’s not just the feeling of isolation that is a problem for those hard of hearing, the danger is that they may be missing important safety information, particularly as they venture out during the pandemic.
Many workplaces such as shops have asked their staff to wear a face covering, but those working in the health care sector are often kitted out in full PPE when treating patients.
Hall: “With doctors and nurses wearing masks, this can be dangerous as they might not be able to understand what is happening to them during these scary times, and nowadays visitors are often not allowed who could help to interpret.”
The worry is that people over the age of 70 are in the most at-risk category for Covid-19, and over 70% of people aged over 70 have experienced hearing loss, which means many people in hospital with the virus may experience issues with communication.
“There needs to be more understanding about how to communicate with those hard of hearing at the moment, people need to be patient and aware that hearing issues is not a necessarily visible disability,” says Hall.
Deaf-friendly face masks
One brilliant solution to this problem comes in the form of see-through masks, which means the wearer can stay protected, but allows people to see their lips to make communication easier.
Although these masks are not as common or widespread, they are available to purchase online and the demand for them has been increasing.
Sonia Carley in Salisbury has quit her engineering job to help out with the Covid-19 pandemic and has made 10,000 face masks with a see-through panel with plans to keep manufacturing them as demand grows.
Currently there are no UK approved manufacturers for clear masks for hospitals, but there has been a growing campaign to get deaf-friendly PPE for healthcare workers.
“Clear masks need to become more available and become the norm because everyone deserves the right to understand what people are trying to communicate to them, especially when it comes to their health,” says Hall.
But if clear face masks are not available, the best practice is to be aware that people might have difficulties and stay patient if they are struggling to hear, which may mean repeating words or using gestures to aid understanding.
Hall: “At the end of the day, the pandemic has changed all of our lives and made everyday tasks harder, so we need to be as patient as we can to help each other get through it.”