Face masks and coverings are now an essential part of everyday life, with it being mandatory to wear them in many public spaces such as shops and on public transport. But while it’s important for protecting our local communities, many people with hearing loss are feeling more isolated than ever.
According to our customer survey, almost a fifth (19%) of people with hearing loss have experienced an increase in frustration, embarrassment and isolation during lockdown — and facemasks are making it even harder to communicate.1 The survey also shows that almost 60% of people who know someone with hearing loss have noticed greater levels of isolation in their friends and family than ever before.
To help, our experts will explain just how face masks can cause social isolation for people with hearing loss and share some tips on how you can be more inclusive while communicating.
How can face masks isolate people with hearing loss?
Why is hearing more difficult with a face mask?
Hearing loss can include anyone who is deaf, hard of hearing or has a partial hearing impairment. Many people with a hearing impairment rely on social cues such as lip reading and facial expressions to help them communicate with others effectively. In busy public spaces such as a shop or supermarket, hearing can already be more difficult. With the addition of mandatory face coverings in many public spaces, lip reading has become impossible, and those with hearing loss are really struggling.
Specsavers chief audiologist Gordon Harrison explains that a facemask can act as a barrier that distorts sounds and even blocks ‘the higher speech frequencies where the key information in words is contained’. This means that the main sounds and cues that those with hearing impairments rely on cannot be transmitted.
A further hindrance is the 1+ metre social distancing rule. The guidance means people must stand further apart, making hearing even more difficult. Added to the use of face coverings, social distancing can quickly turn into social isolation for those with hearing loss.
How can this cause social isolation for people with hearing loss?
As a community of people who already have a difficult time in public spaces, face coverings can further marginalise those with hearing loss. As hearing loss can be a hidden disability, many people may not know to change their speech in order to accommodate. With conversations becoming more difficult, people with hearing loss are likely to feel less confident communicating in general, which may put them off leaving their homes at all.
For instance, an ONS survey in May found that 54.8% of people with a hearing impairment reported leaving their home, compared to 80% of disabled people with a mental health impairment.2 This lack of social interaction could lead people with hearing loss to feel further isolated, and could potentially affect their mental health.
How you can be more inclusive of people with hearing loss
Thankfully, there are a number of steps you can take to make communication clearer and more comfortable for people with hearing loss. They’re simple to do and could make a world of difference to someone who is feeling isolated.
Our top 5 tips for making communication easier for people with hearing loss
- Wear a clear face mask Although they are not as widely available as the surgical or ‘fashionable’ face coverings, you can buy a clear face mask online. These face masks have a transparent covering over your mouth, making it easier for others to lip read. Switching to a clear mask can still help to keep you and others safe, and it will also help those with hearing loss to feel more comfortable when communicating with you.
- Speak clearly It’s important to speak clearly when talking to someone with hearing loss as the sound can get muffled behind the mask. You should also try to speak in a slightly raised voice (a bit louder than you normally would). This doesn't mean that you should shout, as this distorts the sound and will not improve the clarity of your voice.
- Reduce background noise When there are too many sounds, it can be difficult for someone with hearing loss to focus on one specific noise. We understand that this isn’t always possible, but if you could move your conversation to somewhere quieter, this would be a big help.
- Attract the person’s attention In situations where you cannot reduce background noise, it can be difficult for someone with hearing loss to distinguish between several different noises. To help, you should try to attract the person’s attention before you start to speak to them. This will allow them to know who or what sounds to listen to, and they can then pinpoint and focus on your sound.
- Write it down If all else fails, writing information down on your phone notes or a pad of paper can help to clarify what is being said to make sure there is no miscommunication or missed information.
Advice for people with hearing loss
We know that it might be daunting going out in public at the moment, so we have a few tips to help make communicating a little easier.
- Let someone know that you have a hearing impairment If possible, it’s good to notify the person you’re speaking to that you have a hearing impairment. This way, they will be able to accommodate their speech using some of the tips we’ve outlined above. Some of our stores are implementing a badge system that can help notify our staff and members of the public that you experience hearing loss.
- Ask someone to remove their face covering UK Government guidance states that members of the public are permitted to remove their face covering if they ‘are speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate’.3 So, if you both feel comfortable, you could ask somebody to remove their face covering to make communication easier. You can read the full UK government guidance here. Alternatively, the UK government has produced official badges that can be worn or displayed on a mobile phone to notify others that they may need to remove their face covering so that you can better understand them. Print or download your badge here.4
- Have your hearing aids adjusted If you wear hearing aids, you could also ask your audiologist to help you adjust them to compensate when someone is wearing a mask, or use a remote microphone to deliver the best sound to the aids. Find your local Specsavers audiologist here.
1. Specsavers audiology survey 2020 carried out on 1,507 respondents by Perspectus Global
2. Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and the social impacts on disabled people in Great Britain: May 2020. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplep...
3. Gov.uk, Face coverings: when to wear one and how to make your own (2020). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/...
4. Gov.uk, Exemption from face covering badge (2020). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/...
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