Pippa Highfield of Ideas for Ears is searching for practical solutions to the barrier created by face masks
Hearing access when people are wearing masks
Regardless of Government recommendations at this time, it seems more than a little likely that wearing a mask, or some type of face covering, will become prevalent in many settings.
It is understandable that people will wish to protect themselves and do what’s best for their loved ones, but for people with hearing loss, this is a worrying development.
We are already dealing with the appearance of physical barriers at supermarket check-outs, intercoms at doctors surgeries and the 2 metre rule. All of which, though necessary, is making hearing more difficult.
But this latest development is a real game changer – and not in a good way.
I am uneasy about what it will mean for me personally as someone with significant hearing loss, and I am concerned that across the full population of people with hearing loss, all 11 million plus of us, it will lead to even greater feelings of isolation and exclusion.
Face masks block more than germs
The unintended consequence of masks is that they make life a lot harder for those of us with hearing loss.
People who have substantial hearing loss, like me, are probably well aware that, consciously or not, we use lip reading and facial expression to support our understanding of what is being said.
Among those with smaller levels of hearing loss, or with undiagnosed hearing loss, there might not be the same awareness that face and mouth movement provides a useful aid when they are listening. It might well be a surprise when they discover how much not seeing someone’s mouth impacts on their ‘hearing’ and comprehension.
In the short-term at least, I suspect this is a situation that we are going to have to deal with as individuals. It is not going to be easy.
It is likely to feel uncomfortable, for myself included, as we are forced to disclose our hearing difficulties more regularly, widely and repeatedly. This could cause real anxiety for those feeling this to be undignified, exposing and upsetting.
Handling the unexpected consequences
Frankly, few people will have thought about the implications of face masks on people with hearing loss, so the problems are (for the moment) rather hidden. This is not surprising given the volume of change that has swept into all of our lives.
However, solutions do need to be found – and realistically, they need to be solutions that people can put in place themselves right now, in a quick and easy(ish) way. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1) Old fashioned paper and pen!
Since we all rely so heavily on our ‘phones these days, I would imagine that fewer people actually carry a pen and paper with them. I do tend to carry a small notebook and pen with me, but rarely think to use it!
Writing important information down like dates, times and numbers can be a useful way to check understanding. This could work in a situation where you can follow the majority of what is being said, but just need to check a few facts.
2) E-writer, ‘smart’ paper LED writing tablets
If you prefer a more technological version of pen and paper why not get an e-writer? They are inexpensive to buy, lightweight and easy to use. As with pen and paper though, you may need to sanitise your e-writer before and after use to avoid spreading the virus.
3) Ask closed questions
In some situations, you don’t need to hear the conversation in full, as it is enough to simply ‘get the gist’ of what’s said. For instance, you don’t need to hear everything at a check-out to be able to guess you’re being told how much you owe.
The trouble here though, is that you don’t know if you’ve misheard! If in doubt use a closed question to confirm your understanding. Something like, ‘ Did you say 40?’ rather than ‘ Did you say 40 or 14?’.
We’d love to hear how you are getting on in the new world of mask wearers and please share your own tips and advice in the comments section below.
4) Speech to text apps (STT)
If you’ve not come across speech-to-text apps before, they simply use the microphone on your smart phone, tablet or other device, to pick up the speaker’s voice and they then translate it into text on your screen.
My experience with various apps like Ava, Google Transcribe and Otter.ai has been mixed, sometimes good, sometimes poor.
I’ve recently been doing more experimenting with Otter, which seems to work best for me, to explore how well it will work in face-to-face situations at a 2m distance from the person speaking.
I haven’t yet tested it in a supermarket or somewhere with background noise, but in quiet locations, I have had some encouraging results.
In my first ‘experiment’, I simply stood 2m away from the speaker and found that the app adequately translated the conversation to text for me. There was no need to hand the phone over, so no risk of contamination. I just held it in the direction of the speaker and slightly away from me.
In a second ‘experiment’, I gave a wired lapel microphone to the speaker and found that the accuracy of the translation was improved.
Whilst obviously there may prove to be a few practical issues with using a wired microphone, I can see this set up working well in a doctors surgery, for example, where a longer and more accurate conversation may be necessary.
I should add that the Otter app does record the conversation, so it is important to make the other person aware of that fact before you start using it.
5) Communication masks with a clear panel
As you may be aware, there are surgical masks on the market that have a clear panel that allow the wearers’ mouth to be seen. These seem like an excellent solution for those of us who rely on lipreading and something to ask for in situations where it feels like we could expect them to be used e.g. a medical setting.
Even though they might not currently be available, by asking about them we can play our part in building awareness that they can help.
Perhaps in time, we will be able to request the use of these types of mask in the same way that we would request communication support like a lip speaker or a BSL interpreter. This is in line with the Patients’ Rights Act (Scotland) and the Accessible Information and Communication Policy (England and Wales).
What do you think?
So that’s my thoughts on how we might overcome the practical challenges that face masks create. To me, it very much seems that the onus will be on us, as people who have hearing loss, to explore, learn and use whatever method possible we can to ensure we are ‘hearing’ the conversation.
What do you think? Please share your comments or ideas by replying below or sending Ideas for Ears an email.