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New Times for Lipreaders Difficulties with face coverings

Read more Last updated: June 2020
In collection Hearing
Reading duration: 4 minutes

In light of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, we are likely to see an increasing number of people wearing lower-face coverings. While this is prudent in terms of stopping the spread of contagion, it is possibly not such good news for those who rely, even in part, on being able to see another person’s mouth when speaking – not to mention those for whom the muffling of voices (which is inevitable with mouth coverings) will create difficulties around hearing.

Sensory connection

It is not only those who are deaf or obviously hearing-impaired on whom such masks may impact: many people, even those who do not have diagnosed hearing issues, are likely to be affected by the concealment of the lower face. After all, listening and hearing are, to a significant degree, contextual, which means that what we hear with our ears links with our other senses. Consider the time-honoured experiment of trying to identify food types while blindfolded, or with a clothes-pegged nose - or even the awareness that food loses its flavour when you have a cold, or a blocked nose. Reducing the sense of sight or smell impedes the sense of taste: the removal, or minimising, of one sense diminishes the power of another.

Research has shown that the same is true of the link between sight and sound, with our brains amplifying the sound emanating from the source on which we are focused. Even people with cochlear implants and hearing aids may sometimes struggle to understand spoken words in a noisy environment, relying on facial and lip-movement cues to help them. And of course, it is precisely in crowded and noisy environments that we are likely to see an increased incidence of mask wearing.

Masking the problem

So how can we navigate this ‘new normal’? In a world where the nuances supplied by facial expressions are already compromised – thanks to an increasing reliance on digital communication – there may be a further dent made in face-to-face comprehension with widespread mask-wearing. For those with impaired hearing, in particular, this has the potential to be not only frustrating, but also isolating. Given that there are already concerns over how the recent period of ‘distancing’ is likely to affect people, both now and in the long term, there are understandable fears about the extent to which this may have affected – and continue to affect – those with issues around hearing.

People over the age of 70 are not only among those most at risk from Covid-19 but also, those likely to be affected by hearing loss. This is an additional factor to be aware of because, as well as being, statistically, the most likely to be in a clinical setting, where PPE and mouth coverings are compulsory, they are also the most likely to be around people who will be consciously trying to minimise risk by wearing protective gear.

Clearly, this new state of things requires adjustment. It’s often been said that the eyes are the window to the soul, but, in this new normal, might it also be that the lips are? Transparent masks, with a panel revealing the mouth, are a solution that has been suggested for making communication less arduous for hearing-impaired people; for now, however, they are not as readily available as ‘regular’ masks, especially not while many people are still relying on homemade face coverings. Meanwhile, for those who wear hearing aids, options such as ties or mask extenders should be investigated to avoid ear loops displacing devices, or otherwise causing disruption or irritation.

Transparent mask for lipreading
Transparent masks or shields that let you see the other's mouth are suggested in order to facilitate communication with people with a hearing impairment.
© Getty Images

Simple steps

Because a person’s hearing loss isn’t always apparent to someone else, those with impaired hearing will need to be ready to communicate the fact of their difficulty. A printed card could be one option, perhaps saying something along the lines of “I have hearing loss and may have difficulty understanding someone who is wearing a mask. Please keep your mask on, but speak clearly and a slightly louder volume than usual.”

For those wearing a mask and communicating with a hearing-impaired person, the following points are worth bearing in mind:

  • Avoid the temptation to remove your mask – it may heighten the anxiety of the listener
  • Be patient and reassuring
  • Be sure you are facing the person you are talking to
  • Maintain eye contact and use hand gestures, where appropriate
  • Ask the hearing-impaired person about how they would like to be communicated with
  • Speak slightly more slowly and clearly than normal, but avoid shouting
  • Do not ‘talk down’ to your listener. Their hearing loss means they can’t hear clearly; not that they can’t understand
  • Try, where possible, to conduct conversations in an environment where background noise is reduced
  • Write things down if necessary. If using a speech-to-text facility on a phone, double check the words on the screen before showing them to the other person, as your phone may have ‘misheard’ and could cause confusion
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