Photo courtesy of HSDC.org

Who was that face-masked man?

Making eye contact and reading lips is essential to human communication — especially for those who have hearing loss. But what happens when you can’t read lips clearly? Most of us have enjoyed a laugh or two when it comes to bad lip reading. Just yesterday, I was shopping for food at my local grocery store. I collected a few items and had just placed them into the shopping cart when a nice masked man approached me trying to tell me something. I just couldn’t understand him, until he politely repeated himself to clearly tell me that I had mistakenly taken his shopping cart! I profusely apologized to him as we chuckled about it. (Interestingly, our food items were similar!)

Lip reading and facial expressions are so important to personal connection and comprehension. Now that the world is walking around with half their face hidden behind a mask, we are missing out on so much. Of course, for people with hearing loss, mistaken meanings can have serious consequences. As much as we would like to return to life before COVID-19, where face coverings were relatively rare, that is not our current reality. Federally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend wearing face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. On a state level, several governors have mandated face masks in public places like barbershops, salons, gyms, retail stores, and public transportation.

Face masks limit communication for those with hearing loss

With more physical space between the speaker and me, it’s more difficult to make out lip movements. The sound dissipates by the time it reaches my ears. Face coverings muffle volume, hamper clarity, and challenge comprehension. Visual inputs such as reading lips and facial expressions, are virtually eliminated. Additionally, securing a mask intended to fit around the ears presents complications for those with hearing aids (my hearing aids fall to the sides like rabbit ears) or cochlear implants.

Fortunately, masks with clear windows are becoming more popular. A high schooler in St. Louis began 3D printing clear face coverings for his father’s medical practice. He was able to make enough to send to other cities as well. Great solutions are now available for purchase on Amazon and Etsy, too. For the DIY (Do It Yourself) community, video tutorials are available online for transparent face shields and clear windowed masks.

According to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), there are 48 million Americans with some degree of hearing loss. That’s 48 million people for whom face to face communication depends on actually seeing another person’s face and lips. Despite the magnitude of this number, our public spaces are filled with covered faces, in masks without clear windows. This means that those who experience difficulties hearing need to take steps to advocate for themselves.

Hearing and communicating better with masks

First, communicate that you have difficulty hearing and ask the person to speak a little more loudly and clearly — with more enunciation. If you don’t have a face shield or window mask available, suggest the person step back to the acceptable distance of six feet and remove their mask so you can read their lips and pick up on their visual cues. (Ah, they will likely enjoy the fresh air!) If this isn’t an option, consider going old school with pen and paper. Or, ask them to text you. Handing over your smartphone so that they can type in your “notes” app is an option, but it might not be worth sanitizing your phone in addition to your hands.

Masking and social distancing are our new normal for the time being. Safety is a top priority, but so is participating fully in our relationships, workplaces and community. Let’s set the trend for what’s new and next: clear face coverings and masks with windows. Seeing facial expressions helps us all — hearing loss or not — to read emotion and give an appropriate response. (It may even reduce head nodding as a signal that we’re listening!)

“Face Masks and Hearing Loss” webinar from HLAA

How we handle face masks is a genuine concern for the hearing loss community. The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) is hosting a free webinar, “Face Masks and Hearing Loss: Practical Tips and Strategies,” Thursday, May 21 at 2 p.m. EST.

If you have additional suggestions, have a face mask pattern or tutorial you would like to share, or simply want to post your favorite bad lip reading video, we’d love to hear from you. Don’t forget to join our community (it’s free) and follow our blog for the latest in hearing.

Bill Schiffmiller is the CEO and Founder of Akoio, a company dedicated to providing products and services tailored to the needs of people with hearing loss. A life-long hearing aid user and hearing wellness advocate, Bill was the former Accessibility Advocate for Apple, Inc., and received his Master of Professional Studies degree in Design Management at Pratt Institute.