Facemasks and Communication Breakdown

May 15, 2020, Sarah Wellwood, Au.D.

Hearing loss is a communication disorder. Oral communication is most effective when clear, articulate and audible speech reaches an individual with normal hearing. Communication barriers arise when speech is not audible for whatever reason, be it on the speaker’s end or the ​listener’s end. We have understood for a long time that the use of lip-reading cues and facial cues greatly aid speech recognition. Taking away visual cues makes it harder, especially for those with hearing loss, to understand speech. In the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are wearing facemasks on a regular basis, which in turn is blocking these important cues. According to a recent article published in The Hearing Review, simple facemasks, including cloth and surgical masks, reduce speech sounds in the higher frequencies by 3-4 dB and N95 masks reduce those frequencies as much as 12dB! This is especially detrimental to those with hearing loss.

Please remember to be patient while communicating with those with hearing loss. Be mindful of background noise that might be interfering with communication (TV, air-conditioning, other’s conversations, etc.) and make eye contact with the individual. Have a pad of paper and pen handy to write down what you are trying to communicate if multiple attempts at communication fail. Invest in a pocket talker (a simple internet search will yield several options) as a low-cost assistive listening device or make an appointment to discuss hearing aid options. Be aware that raising your voice may distort speech while slowing down the rate of your speech and paying attention to articulation can go a long way.

References:

1) Goldin A, Weinstein BE, Shiman N. How do medical masks degrade speech perception? Hearing Review. 2020;27(5):8-9.

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