Living with COVID-19 restrictions and living WELL are too different things.
To protect ourselves and others, we have embraced inconveniences knowing this pandemic is not forever. We know that following the restrictions can help us stay healthy and safe. We might forget how these new restrictions impacts people with hearing and communication disorders.
Those who are deaf, deafblind, hard of hearing and otherwise challenged to communicate are struggling right now. They may feel they are not part of the larger community but rather on the fringes. Some of the reasons they struggle can include face masks and limited ability to hear on the phone, computer or smart devices.
Masks are part of our life during the pandemic. We cannot change that, but we can try to mitigate the impact. People with communication disorders need visual information. Even people with normal hearing use visual information as it provides improved speech understanding, information about emotion, cues on when to respond in turn. Without visuals, people will misunderstand and ask for repeat information. Masks also muffle speech reducing the ability to hear clearly for everyone.
For people with communication disorders masks can be an overwhelming burden since visual information is more than added flair, it is necessary to access to speech. Lipreading, facial expressions and motions are critical for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or living with auditory disorders. The ability to touch hands and read faces is critical for people who are deafblind leading to even more severe isolation since they cannot fall back on handwritten communication.
Furthermore, without an understanding communication partner, interactions can go poorly as people can be dismissive. Not being able to communication can be mistaken as rudeness or cognitive decline. Even after explaining a communication barrier, some interactions still do not go well when the other person does not have an understanding on how to help.
Hearing on the Phone
It is not uncommon for a person with hearing and communication difficulties to seek out communication face-to-face to avoid the phone. They may decide to not answer their phone for fear of not knowing who they are talking to because they are embarrassed, they will say the wrong thing. Some people turn to text and email exclusively. Text and email can only go so far and are not great for communication that is urgent. Without access to phone communication, people can feel more anxious and more isolated. They may limit conversations with loved ones, not because they do not want to talk but because they cannot hear. They may worry about needing help and not having a suitable lifeline for communication.
What to do?
Now that we addressed the problem, we can look at the solutions. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the impact of COVID-19 restrictions. Solutions are available for those seeking support. This article does not begin to cover all the options. We are going to focus on the most readily available options.
Solutions for masks
For face to face speech understanding when masks must be worn, the following solutions may help. Have a tablet or small white board and write down the conversation. Let people know what works best for communication and tell them that you need help. Ask people to speak more slowly and a little louder than usual, but not to shout, and try to eliminate as much background noise as possible. Ask them to spell a word that is not clear. When feasible ask that they wear a shield or a window mask for lipreading. Try a live captioning app on a smart device. Captions are fast enough to keep up with live speech if the device has a good internet connection.
Solutions for phone
One way to address hearing related concerns on the phone is to use captioning. Landline phones are available with captions built in and phone captioning apps are available for smartphones and tablets. Most of the phone and app solutions are free and can be obtained either directly with the manufacturer or through the hearing care provider’s office. The captions also add the benefit of having a record of the conversation that and be re-read after the phone call is over.
Untreated hearing loss
Addressing hearing loss that is untreated can have a significant impact on quality of life. Although hearing devices do not solve all hearing problems, making sure that hearing is optimized will improve communication in many situations. Treatment for hearing disorders can range greatly depending on the type of hearing loss and degree of severity. It could include hearing aids, cochlear implants, other types of implanted devices, assistive devices such as amplifiers, specialized phones and more. Letting unresolved hearing loss continue untreated is known for increased risk of isolation, depression, anxiety, relationship and work issues, decline in cognitive health, loss of balance and more.