When you have hearing loss, understanding speech does not come naturally. It takes effort. The clues we get from lip movements and facial expressions are almost as important as the sounds that are amplified by our hearing devices. We must look as well as listen in order to hear. Masks, while necessary and important for public health, make this process more challenging.
In my post, Masks Are the Latest Obstacle for People With Hearing Loss I share more information about the difficulties we face while communicating with masks and some helpful tips for combatting these issues, but in this post, I want to explore the ways we can successfully communicate these challenges to others so we can get the assistance that we need. My recent visit to the post office is a perfect case study.
Mask Wearing Cross Talk Made My Errand a Challenge
I was picking up a package at the post office. It was almost closing time so there were several of us in line trying to fit an errand in at the end of the day. We stood mostly in silence, six feet apart, staring into space as we waited for our turn to move to the next appropriately spaced yellow X on the floor. We all wore masks. Finally, it was my turn.
The woman behind the counter was very pleasant and had a clear and loud voice. I was doing fairly well conversing with her despite her mask until another woman walked into the waiting area and began shouting something to her friend a few places ahead of her in line. The attendant moved away from me to look for my package but continued to speak to me as the ruckus behind me grew.
I turned to the women behind me and asked, “Can you please be quieter, I am having trouble hearing.” I thought that I had said this in a pleasant voice and with a smile, but of course she could not see my face since I was wearing a mask. I could feel more than hear the antipathy surging at me from behind. I turned again to explain, “I am a little bit deaf so it is hard for me to hear with the extra noise.” I rarely describe myself as “deaf” but in cases where I think it will make it easier to get assistance, I use the term.
“Well, you don’t need to be so aggressive about it,” was her reply along with some other choice words. The rest played out quickly. The post office attendant told her that she had seen the whole thing. I had been pleasant and that she should be quiet. This went around and around for what felt like several minutes. My heart was pounding. It was stressful and certainly not how I planned to spend these few moments picking up a package.
Eventually everyone calmed down, I got my package and left, but this experience raises an important question. How can we best communicate the challenges we face as people with hearing loss in this new era of masks so that we get the assistance we need rather than the ire of people who just don’t get it?
How to Teach Others About Hearing Loss and Masks
In normal times, it is difficult to explain hearing loss to the uninitiated. And rightly so; hearing loss is not easy to understand if you have not experienced it yourself. It will be harder still during these challenging days when tensions are high and people are afraid for their safety. We need to find ways to educate others about the difficulties we face communicating with people wearing masks so that we can get their buy-in and assistance. I offer my suggestions below. Please add yours in the comments.
Raise awareness about the issue.
There have been many articles and TV spots highlighting the difficulty people with hearing loss have communicating with people wearing mask. This is wonderful, except that most of these spots have focused exclusively on clear masks as the solution. I love the clear mask idea, but there are many challenges with it in the near term, especially since the only FDA approved version is backordered for months. Homemade options do exist and many are wonderful, but they are not likely to become the norm for some time. We need to raise awareness of the issue of hearing loss more generally so the people we meet at the store or in line at the bank don’t assume that everyone can hear just fine.
Have your script ready to go.
It is hard to think of the exact right thing to say in the moment, especially given the stress of not being able to hear. Plan in advance a short way to explain the issue so that when you are faced with trouble you are prepared. Something like, “Excuse me. I am a little bit deaf and am having trouble hearing because of our masks.” Pause and smile. Even if they can’t see your smile, perhaps they will hear it in your voice. “Would you mind speaking a bit louder (or into my phone microphone or quieter in the case of other speakers) so I can understand better?” Perhaps if I had led with the reason for the request rather than the request itself, I would have had less of an issue at the post office.
Make your hearing loss more visible.
With hindsight, I wonder if I should have tried to make my hearing loss more visible. I could have worn a mask proclaiming my hearing loss or been more proactive about visibly using my speech-to-text app to help me hear. Making our difficulties easier to notice could help us turn these potentially awkward moments into opportunities to teach others about hearing loss and the tricks and tips we use to communicate more effectively. Perhaps the misunderstanding at the post office could have created a dialogue around the issue of hearing loss, rather than an altercation.
Readers, how do you let others know about the tough combination of hearing loss and masks?