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Masks are challenging us!

The global pandemic has set a new ‘normal’ for us all and in the Governments now mandatory use of face masks in public places, it brings new challenges for people with hearing loss. The inability to be able to lip-read and effectively communicate, being foremost.

Of course we understand the reality of why we must wear masks, for the benefit of our own health and safety and that of others, but it has become a controversial topic for those who are deaf or have acquired hearing problems.

That said, removing the visual facial clues we so rely on, makes communication more taxing because of the mental exertion required to listen, especially when there is background noise. Even if a person with hearing loss can follow what is said, the mental drain is difficult, especially to think about and recall what has been heard.

We know there are masks now available with a transparent material that allows the mouth to be seen, but as yet these are not widely available.  We are in the early stages of testing these in our own working environments and will report our outcomes once we are satisfied we have given them a fair trial.

Many retail employees are adopting the use of clear, transparent face shields as an alternative option which are offering a solution, but we have been advised that without also using a mask, these shields offer very little protection against the virus.  

Additional challenges and frustrations for people with hearing loss wearing masks is that the increased effort having to be made to listen and understand is exacerbated tenfold for those who find it hard to hear.

According to the WHO there are 1.33 billion people globally with hearing loss. We talk frequently about the fact that hearing loss leads to communication difficulties between family members, colleagues and friends. It is associated with negative factors such as poor social interactions, isolation, depression and anxiety, increased risk of dementia and reduced quality of life. In fact, there are probably many people with hearing loss who were able to manage but who will positively struggle with the widespread use of masks.

Practical Advice

Wearing a mask with hearing aids

If you wear behind-the-ear hearing aids, you will likely encounter some problems trying to wear a standard face mask with elastic ear loops. The ear loops may tug at the tubing that connects the hearing aid to the speaker that sits in your ear (known as the dome). You also may inadvertently pull your hearing aids out and drop them when removing your mask. What’s a hearing aid wearer to do? 

Because there are various types of hearing aids, we recommend you first reach out to your hearing audiologist or hearing care provider who may have solutions they’ve come up with when talking to other patients. For example:

  • Wearing a mask with soft fabric ties to relieve the pressure on the ears, instead of elastic
  • Using a special mask extender with buttons or other holders to attach the mask loops onto, on the back of the head, instead of the ears (medical practitioners now use these, since they have to wear tight-fitting masks all day)
  • Using simple tools like plastic s-hooks to loop the mask onto, instead of your ears
  • Use a cord-and-clip system, such as Ear Gear

Tips to improve communication if you have a hearing loss

So what can you do to improve communication if you have a hearing loss and are confronted by someone wearing a face mask?

  • Ask them to reduce the background noise as much as possible or move to a quieter location.
  • Ask them to talk slowly and not shout.
  • Always carry a notepad and pen so things can be written down if needs be.
  • Badges are available to wear that show you have a hearing loss and available from the national charity Hearing Link:
  • There are apps available to download onto smartphones that can provide amplification to improve speech understanding.
  • Alternatively, there are apps that will translate speech into text in real time, such as Live Transcribe. Please search your app store for further info and choice.