While they are helpful tools for keeping us safe in the age of COVID-19, face masks are causing communication difficulties. Even people with normal hearing complain that it’s difficult to hear people’s voices behind masks, but this challenge is exponentially greater for those with hearing loss. Not only do masks muffle voices, but many who have hearing loss rely on lip-reading for communication – which, of course, is impossible when everyone around has their mouths covered.
Fortunately, there are some innovative strategies coming to the market that can help improve communication while wearing masks.
Crafters and innovators have begun creating masks with see-through panels to help people with hearing loss communicate better with those around them. These are an especially hot commodity for teachers and those who work with the elderly.
“For a lot of children communication is nonverbal,” said ClearMask founder and CEO Aaron Hsu. “Being able to see who we’re talking to is fundamental to how we communicate and connect.”
ClearMask was started in 2017 by four Johns Hopkins students who identified the need for better communication with deaf and hard-of-hearing people within the medical community, but they’ve exploded in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Demand has skyrocketed,” Hsu explained. “I mean, we’re working around the clock.”
It is important to note that the CDC warns that these types of face shields do not always provide adequate protection because they are open at the bottom. However, ClearMask is currently seeking to earn an FDA clearance deeming their design equivalent to medical-grade surgical masks, and other versions are likely to follow suit.
Unfortunately, many people who don’t have a person with hearing loss in their life won’t think to invest in a mask design that aids communication.
Amy Bull, a career-services coordinator for Hondros College of Nursing who has hearing loss herself, describes a common scenario when her students enter her office: “I will say again and again, ’I cannot hear you,’ and their initial reaction is to rip off their mask every time and keep talking … And that’s not doing anybody any good.”
This is why she developed a solution for communicating the fact she needs people to speak up when coming to talk to her: mask buttons.
Bull has an Etsy page where she sells $4 buttons that can be pinned to masks with one of the following sayings:
Please be patient. I’m hard of hearing.
Your mask means I can’t read your lips. Please speak up.
Hard of hearing. Please keep mask on and speak up.
To talk to an audiologist about communication strategies or to schedule a hearing test, call the experts at Arizona Hearing Specialists.