Auditory issues and mask-wearing

Photo by Becca Lowe

Masks are quickly becoming part of the new normal as more cities are encouraging and legislating their use to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

However, there are some hidden drawbacks in addition to the slight discomfort and extra heat of wearing one during a hot, Calgary summer.

While masks should continue to be worn in concert with a host of other doctor-recommended behaviours to help reduce contagion, their use poses an issue to those who have hearing loss or similar auditory-related issues.

Facial coverings and Plexiglas barriers, although a boon to reduce the spread of the virus, make it more difficult to read lips, recognize facial expressions and for sound to travel efficiently between individuals.

Hearing loss is not an insignificant issue, either. Statistics Canada results indicate that 40 per cent of adults aged 20 to 79 have at least slight hearing loss in one or both ears and that hearing loss was more prevalent in older age groups.

Adults between 60 to 79 years of age are 78 per cent more likely to have hearing loss compared with younger cohort groups.

There are recommended strategies, however, to help both those with and without hearing loss to better communicate and be more easily understood according to Carrie Scarff, a doctor with the Calgary hearing clinic Audiology Innovations.

In a video posted to the clinic’s YouTube channel, Scarff outlined several methods to help alleviate and avoid potential confusion or frustration.

“It’s harder to hear over technology since there are some changes to the sound that comes through as well as some timing delays and artifacts,” Scarff explained. “Be sure to speak clearly and try to speak one person at a time if you’re on a group call.”

When socially distancing, Scarff also recommends that you face your communication partner when you’re speaking with them as conversing at length can make it more difficult for those with hearing loss.

“This can give them some visual cues to what you’re saying,” Scarff added.

When wearing a mask, she recommends speaking slowly, clearly and taking breaks between topics.

Masks that have a clear plastic shield over the mouth are available, but less widespread, so those with hearing loss cannot rely on their existence to ensure they can understand and be understood in turn.

Other sources have a host of recommendations as well: augmenting conversation with body language and hand gestures can add much-needed context to your words.

Individuals with hearing loss — if comfortable — can advocate for themselves and make their issues known. Asking others to speak up and speak slowly may be a cause of anxiety for some, but according to the World Health Organization, roughly 1.33 billion people across the world experience some form of hearing loss. Advocating for oneself and making others aware of one’s hearing loss can help them adjust their actions accordingly, whether it’s changing their speech patterns or moving to a quieter location.

Finally, the issue of hearing aids. As many devices wrap around the ears, the addition of mask straps can make the area a trouble spot, with the potential for hearing devices to get lost.

By using a connector, commonly called an “ear saver,” those with hearing loss can avoid mask straps pulling at their ears where they may already have glasses and hearing devices busying up the place.