The introduction of masks and 2-metre distancing to help stop the spread of coronavirus are causing increased levels of worry, stress and isolation among people with hearing loss.
The anxiety relates to fears that it will become harder to hear and follow what people are saying when the speaker is wearing a mask or other facial covering and/or they are physically further away.
The unintended consequences were revealed by a survey carried out 21 to 30 April by the not-for-profit social enterprise Ideas for Ears. 302 respondents gave their views, including 53 respondent with good hearing and 249 with hearing loss.
Of respondents with hearing loss, 79% said face masks make life much harder, with 69% saying their growing use is making them worried they will more regularly mishear or misunderstand. Nearly half (45%) said they are worried it will make them more isolated, and a third (33%) said they are fearful it will reduce their independence.
Respondents gave their views on the nature of the difficulties caused by masks. 85% said they block visibility of face or mouth and prevent lipreading, 72% said they muffle voices and reduce clarity of speech, and 55% said they bock sound and reduce volume.
“If masks are used socially, I will no longer be able to have any conversations at all”
“I’m very anxious about communication should I, or my deafer husband, need to be hospitalised, or worse on a ventilator”
“I worry for my child who is deaf and will struggle. It will make her more isolated”
I am a class teacher and do not know how I will be able to manage.”
Despite the impact, people with hearing loss understand and accept the use of masks by health and care staff and want them to be worn. To a slightly lesser extent, they accept and support use of masks by other service providers, such as shop staff, and to a slightly lesser extent again, they accept and support their use by the general public. This is the same trend evident among survey respondents who had good hearing.
“Although it will make things more challenging for me, I think it’s selfish to request that others put themselves at risk by asking them to either not use masks, take masks off, or use substandard masks with clear panels.”
The 2-metre distancing rule is also creating difficulties both when masks are being used and when they are not. 92% of respondents with hearing loss said it is a problem when the person they are speaking with is using a mask, with 71% saying it is a problem even when they are not. As a result, communication is now more stressful (57%), they avoid talking to people (47%), they are more anxious when they do speak to people (42%), and they feel more isolated (35%).
“It creates such an added difficulty. I feel so sad avoiding people because I can’t hear them.”
“It makes it ten times harder for me. My hearing aids just can’t pick up the sound well enough, especially in a noisy place.”
“My mum struggles to be heard from people are over 2m away”
“I went to see my GP in person last week and she kindly removed her mask but had to sit further away, which due to my sight loss made it difficult for me to lipread.”
Additional challenges are arising from the increased reliance on phone calls and video calls, with more than a third of respondents with hearing loss (35%) saying phone calls to access health, care or befriender services are an issue, and 18% saying use of video calls is an issue. Comments left by respondents also suggest phone and video calls to be causing difficulties in workplaces and when it comes to staying in touch with family and friends.
“I’ve had to have appointments with both my GP and clinical psychologist over the phone which has been difficulty and leaves me exhausted.”
“Phone conversations desperately important but some are dreaded because I cannot make out what is being said.”
“I have to use video conferencing for work. It takes a lot more concentration to follow an online meeting than a face to face one. And that is on top of the extra concentration needed to lipread as well as listen.”
“My work has told us us all to work from home and is introducing video calls without subtitles which I feel very uncomfortable about but have no choice.”
“Family video calls are important to me but I find hearing difficult and stressful.”
On top of these challenges, people with hearing loss are report experiencing reduced availability of services to maintain hearing aids, treat ear wax, and test and manage hearing, which could mean they are hearing less well than they usually would.
Sally Shaw, founder & director of Ideas for Ears, comments:
“The need to stamp out Coronavirus is, of course, the over-riding priority, but as the enormous effort goes on to achieve this, we must not overlook or underestimate the impact that the measures to tackle the pandemic are having on those who have hearing loss. Face masks, two-metre distancing and other challenges are adding considerable strain and burden to people with hearing loss as they seek to stay in touch with family and friends, use important services, and navigate workplace communication.
“To prevent a downward cycle of isolation and exclusion, there is a need to identify the most helpful and realistic actions that can reduce the impact. This is likely to involve a combination of solutions that are about the behaviour of people and the use of technology and equipment. It is perfectly possible to make things easier for people with hearing loss and it is worthwhile doing so because of the numbers who can benefit, especially among the older age groups who are likely to be self-isolating for longer.”