I am always staring at people’s lips. Because that’s where I get much of the speechreading information I use to help me hear. Big lips, small lips, red lips, blue lips — it is all the same to me. I just want clear access. No covering your mouth with your hand, no facial hair (well, if you must, please keep it well groomed), and certainly no leftover mayonnaise from your turkey sandwich. But as I recently realized, I need to add one more to the list. No sunburn.
It was our first trip to the beach post-quarantine and we were all a little too excited. We spent too much time floating in the ocean and too little time reapplying suntan lotion as often as needed. After the first day, we had sunburns on our stomachs and feet and backs. But the worst place was on our faces, especially my husband’s lips. It is never a good idea to burn your lips, but this is particularly true when your wife has hearing loss. “Next time we go to the beach, we need to be more careful about your lips,” I warned. “I need them so I can understand you!”
Speechreading Improves with Familiarity
Sometimes called lipreading, speechreading is a technique for understanding speech using visual cues like facial expression combined with movements of the lips, face, and tongue. Most people with hearing loss use lipreading to aid with communication, even if we are not aware they are doing so. The ability to lipread comes naturally to some people, while others struggle with it. Training and practice can improve your skills over time.
Some people are just easier to speechread. Their facial expressions always match what they are saying, their voice tones vary with their emotions and they fully enunciate the final consonant of each word. Other people are not. But even the more challenging people usually become easier to understand with familiarity and practice. Most people with hearing loss do our best lipreading on the people that we see most often, because we have the most practice at it.
During our many years together, I have become quite skilled at lipreading my husband. I am used to the way he pronounces words, as long as he is facing me, of course. But after our days in the sun, everything looked different on his mouth. His swollen-from-the-sunburn bottom lip jutting out of proportion made it hard to understand what he was saying. Plus it probably hurt for him to talk. Poor guy.
Masks Make Lipreading Impossible
Lipreading has gotten a lot of attention recently because face masks make it almost impossible to do it well. While speechreading encompasses more than just lip movements, for me, at least, the lips are where I get most of the information I use to fill in the blanks of what I don’t hear. While I have gotten better at identifying a smile or confusion in another person’s eyes, to understand speech, I need to see the lips.
Masks may be around for some time, as we all learn to safely navigate a post-quarantine world. And while clear masks are preferred by some people with hearing loss because they help with speechreading, I personally find them less helpful because of the increased degradation of the sound quality through the mask. This may not be true for everyone. In any event, clear masks are unlikely to be the norm anytime soon due to their higher unit cost.
The following tips can make communicating with masks a bit easier.
- Let the person wearing the mask know that you are having trouble hearing them.
- Ask them to speak louder and to speak more slowly.
- Suggest alternative forms of communication such as paper and pen.
- Use a speech-to-text app to transcribe the conversation.
These tips and others are included in Ida Institute’s Communication Tips When Using Face Masks card, available as a free download. Feel free to share it with your communication partners.
Readers, do you rely on speechreading to help you hear?