Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a good crisis,” and people with hearing loss have taken his advice with Covid-19. Times have been very hard for many of us with hearing loss during the pandemic — increased levels of isolation, difficulties communicating because of masks and the lack of captioning on many video conferencing platforms — but the community has come together to advocate for change and to build awareness.
It feels like our efforts are having impact. More consideration is being given to the communication needs of people with hearing loss in a variety of settings, including in hospitals. Technology companies are rolling out new options to aid with communication. Media coverage of clear face masks is on the rise. This is all good news.
Many Video Conferencing Platforms Now Offer Free Auto Captioning
Both Google Meet and Microsoft Teams now offer free auto-captions on all video calls made on their platforms. Webex just announced it is trialing auto captions as well. High quality auto captions not only make smart business sense — almost everyone finds captions helpful amid the new norm of perpetual video conference calls — it is also the right thing to do because it makes these calls more inclusive.
This is true not just for people with hearing loss, but also for non-native English speakers, people with auditory and sensory processing issues, and many others. Zoom lags behind but is starting to include people with hearing loss in its beta test of integrated auto captions. To show Zoom how important free auto captions are to your ability to communicate on their platform, sign and share the petition Provide Free Captions for People with Hearing Loss on Video Conferencing Platforms.
Interest in Clear Masks is Growing
While clear masks remain difficult to find — the only FDA approved clear mask has been sold out for months — clear masks have become part of the conversation. This is a big step forward. In the United Kingdom, several hearing loss related charities teamed up to write a letter to the National Health Service urging them to review the commissioning and availability of protective face masks and visors/shields for use in health settings. The letter states:
Clear face masks would certainly help, by allowing deaf people to lip-read and to access more visual cues. Clear face visors/shields, making it possible to see the whole face, would make it easier still. Research indicates that visors/shields also help to reduce anxiety among patients.
In the United States, media coverage has helped build awareness about the importance of clear mask by sharing the challenges people with hearing loss face while communicating with masks. The media are also sharing feel-good stories about crafters fashioning home-made clear masks to help. These narratives raise awareness about the challenges of living with hearing loss and may help accelerate the usage of clear masks or similar solutions across a variety of settings.
New Apps with Accessibility Features are Rolling Out Fast
Technology companies have been racing to get new products to market driven by increased demand for apps that make remote communication easier. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. One app that stands out is Chatable, which along with Ear Machine and Google’s Sound Amplifier, provides sound amplification via headphones attached to your smartphone.
I recently tried Chatable while stopped in my car due to road work up ahead. I could not understand the spoken instructions of the masked man directing traffic until I turned on the app. Each of the sound amplifier apps can prove helpful when conversing with masks. Ear Machine and Sound Amplifier are free. Chatable has a free version, but for full functionality, including its highest levels of background noise reduction, the cost is $12.99 per month. Apple recently announced its new AirPods can be used as sound amplifiers as well.
It is exciting to see the hearing loss community come together during this time of crisis to share information, guidance and support and to advocate for our needs. Our collective work is having impact. Let’s continue to use this crisis to help society build a new and higher standard for accessible communication that lasts well into the future.