Face masks and hearing loss, tips for supporting the hearing impaired

text, whiteboard: Fairbanks Hearing & Balance Center sign

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Fairbanks Hearing & Balance Center sign

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -The COVID-19 pandemic has had a variety of impacts on the community, and has affected many in different ways. Dr. Mariana McIlwain, audiologist with the Fairbanks Hearing and Balance talks about how the hearing impaired community has been affected by the pandemic.

“The year 2020 has been a very difficult year for all of us. One thing that has been particularly challenging is the way we communicate and interact with others. It’s just an eye opening experience to realize just how much we use our face to communicate,” said McIlwain.

Lip reading and facial recognition are important components of human interaction, especially for those who have underlying hearing loss. For them these visual cues can be essential to understanding and participating in everyday environments. McIlwain told us, “With the measures to decrease the spread of COVID-19 like wearing face masks as well as keeping six feet of distance, people that have problems hearing have had a really hard time or difficulty communicating with others.”

Even a mild form of hearing loss can create challenges when listening to higher pitched voices, certain consonants, and hearing particular people in a noisy environment. Even people without any form of hearing loss are feeling the effects of communicating without any form of lip reading.

“We have also had a lot of normal hearing individuals come in just for an annual hearing test, or for a baseline hearing test, because they think they have a hearing loss because they didn’t realize how much they lip read, and we all lip read to some extent. We really rely a lot on our facial expressions, or the full story of your face to communicate with each other,” said McIlwain.

In an effort to mitigate these communication obstacles, McIlwain offers a series of recommendations: “I think the most important things are: always face your communication partner. Ask your communication partner to speak in short sentences, and to have a slow rate of speech. If there’s noise around you try to reduce the noise, even if that means to step outside the location you are in. And if you are having a lot of trouble communicating and you’re frustrated, just take a break and try to communicate at a different time.”

Using a text-to-speech app on a smart device, a whiteboard, or simple pen and paper are also recommended in a pinch, according to McIlwain, “And most importantly for those with normal hearing who are not struggling in our community, be patient and kind — ’cause there are a lot of people who are struggling and who really want to communicate with you, but may just be having a harder time.”

With these helpful tips, communication can be less of an obstacle through the pandemic. McIlwain concluded by saying, “If you know anyone, or are someone who is currently struggling communicating with each other, just know that the Fairbanks Hearing And Balance Center is here to serve you and the community, and to help you reconnect with the ones that you love.”

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