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Face masks have become essential to daily life. Over one year into the global pandemic, face masks are mandated (or highly recommended) in public spaces. A critical safety measure, face masks reduce the risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus. While important for individual and public health, masks also present unique challenges for people with hearing loss. A chronic medical condition that affects an estimated 48 million people in the U.S (466 million globally). experience, hearing loss reduces a person’s ability to hear and process sound. Face masks can literally mask sound, making it even more difficult to hear. Emerging studies have examined the impact of face masks on communication as well as identified masks that are more useful. Additionally, there are new masks on the horizon that are being researched and designed for people with hearing loss!
Impact of Face Masks on Communication
Face masks affect access and quality of sound which impacts communication in a few ways:
- Covers Mouth: The mouth being fully covered creates barriers to hearing clearly. This is particularly impactful for people with hearing loss who often use strategies like lip-reading to understand what is being communicated. Lip reading is a useful way to distinguish words and follow a conversation. Face masks completely block access to the mouth which makes this strategy impossible to use.
- Muffles Sound: face masks also restrict mouth movement which impacts sound quality. Wearing fabric over the mouth prevents the mouth from fully moving which means that words are easily not completely annunciated. This muffles sound and distorts words which add to the difficulty of hearing.
These major effects of face masks also heighten other challenges around communication. This includes background noise, engaging with multiple people, and sound being too quiet. Navigating these challenges and contending with face masks simultaneously can be stressful and overwhelming. It can take a toll on conversations, the desire to engage with others, and produce fatigue. Fortunately, recent research explores this issue and offers suggestions that address these challenges!
Suggested Masks for Improved Communication
A recent study, published in February, studied four different types of masks and their impact on communication. Researchers evaluated the N95, surgical mask, and two types of cloth masks against varying levels of background noise. They found that when background noise is limited, all of these mask types allowed speech to be conveyed effectively. Additionally, in the presence of more background noise, surgical masks worked the best in terms of being able to understand speech.
- Surgical masks: surgical masks are worn by healthcare professionals. These disposable masks help block large particles (that could contain bacteria) from being inhaled. Medical grade masks consist of three layers of fabric and comfortable straps and facilitate a looser but also secure fit. This provides the mouth with more room to move and pronounce speech which is more conducive to hearing clearly.
- Clear masks: another option that is useful is clear masks or masks with a see-through plastic panel. This allows others to still be able to see the mouth which is incredibly helpful for lip reading. It is worth exploring different types of masks that offer this!
- New mask in development: in addition to these latest research findings, researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K. are leading the effort to develop new face masks specifically for people with audio and visual impairments.
It is important to explore your face mask options to figure out what is most comfortable and works best for communication.
There are also practices you can integrate to help you navigate communication challenges with face masks. This includes:
- Wear Comfortable Masks: your masks should not be too tight. Be sure to wear masks that are comfortable, providing your mouth with room. The straps should also be comfortable around your ears.
- Avoid Background Noise: background noise is a major distraction and barrier to communication. Avoid loud settings, turn off or lower the volume on any devices and household appliances, and opt-in for quieter environments.
- Exaggerate Nonverbal Cues: enhancing other nonverbal cues is a good way to provide context. This includes using hand gestures, head nods, body movement, etc.