With people currently being required to wear face masks and face coverings in public places to help reduce COVID-19 transmissions, this poses communication challenges for people like me, members of the hearing loss community.
When faces are covered, it adds an extra barrier for achieving successful communication; it is challenging for people who rely on lipreading to communicate with people using face masks, due to both muffled speech and lack of visual cues.
Muffled Sounds and Lipreading
In attempting to communicate with people wearing face masks, it has only recently occurred to me how much I rely on lipreading.
When speech is unclear, I often guess the general theme or significance, using the tone of voice as a guide. I instinctively look towards the speaker’s mouth and watch the shapes and movement of their lips to give me clues about the content.
The muffled sound that comes through a face mask is never clear. Now, with many people wearing face masks, lips and faces are no longer visible to read, and I am entirely unaided. I am guessing without a hint.
In addition to concentrating on the sound of speech in conversation, I also focus on the reactions of the speaker. For example, if someone is telling a story and smiling, I know that a smile is an appropriate response, regardless of how much of the dialogue I can hear. Expressions are not visible through face masks.
Whatever our hearing capacity, we rely on expressions to understand how others are feeling.
Developing Communication Strategies
Muffled voices and concealed facial expressions can make communication difficult for everyone, not just those with hearing loss.
I have noticed some people making an effort to speak more clearly from behind their face masks, and some have shown patience when I haven’t immediately understood them. Repetition of missed dialogue is becoming more common during everyday interactions, and gestures seem to be being used more often to help convey meaning. However, some are yet to implement measures to aid a more effective approach to communicate, and there are times where self-advocacy is necessary.
I hope that people will naturally develop strategies to break down barriers and make communication clearer and more accessible. Perhaps the impact of face masks on communication will ultimately be a positive one.
Carly Sygrove is a hearing loss blogger who lives in Madrid. She loves: spending time with her sister, walking in the countryside, getting lost in Madrid with her boyfriend, travelling, going out for breakfast, her family and friends, taking photos, listening to music, storytelling podcasts, baking, running, drinking wine, and eating spicy food.
In 2016, she experienced a profound sudden sensorineural hearing loss in her left ear. She started a blog as a way of sharing her experiences of living with single-sided deafness, and the challenges posed by hearing loss on her everyday life.