Navigating a masked world when you are deaf/HoH

-Ana

While the pandemic rages around the world, I know I have been incredibly lucky. Like many, I have struggled to keep my kids busy and to some degree engaged with their education, struggled to keep any semblance of work productivity, and struggled to remain optimistic about a return to a post-pandemic life that resembles my pre-pandemic one. However, I have been healthy, and nobody close to me has fallen sick. And—through the accident of timing—I have also experienced the pandemic in two geographic areas, one of which has thus far managed the coronavirus quite well (Germany), and one where I arrived once it was under control (Massachusetts, USA).

Definitely lucky.

And yet… There is a part of me that very much wants to throw a tantrum and howl at the moon about the unfairness of it all. All because of the need for face masks, which have greatly reduced my ability to communicate. 

In the last 4 months, face masks have emerged as the cheapest, most reliable method to stop the spread of COVID-19. We all have to wear them. And while all the deaf/hard of hearing (HoH) people I know are 100% behind mask wearing, many of us have been put in a bind. Navigating effective communication when out and about is never effortless for us. Lip-reading does not capture all spoken sounds, and there is a great cognitive load involved in filling the gaps to understand what is being said. Add masks, and communication with others becomes nearly impossible. 

To begin with, face masks make it very hard for those of us relying on speech- and lip-reading and on signed languages to understand speech.

This has been documented very eloquently in this article by Sara Nović for the Washington Post; in this interview of Gallaudet professor Dr. Julie Hochgesang; in this article by Shari Eberts for the “Living with Hearing Loss” blog; and this post by Nehama Rogozen for Slate magazine.

And, despite the feel-good idea of face masks with clear “windows,” our communication travails aren’t likely to end any time soon, as explained by Katherine Woodcock (@safeandsilent) in this and this blog post. 

And, surprisingly, masks pose an unexpected hazard to our hearing devices.

Alt Text: A worried face trying alternative orders to putting on a behind-the-ear hearing aid, face mask, and glasses. Each time the objects end up in a tangled mess (many thanks to M. Cooke for help with animation).

As a wearer of behind the ear (BTE) hearing aids and glasses—and now masks—I find that there are just too many things hanging from my ears. Trying to adjust or remove any of them leads to a tragi-comic (yes, I am still capable of laughing at myself as I nurse my tantrum) Rube Goldberg machine chain reaction that inevitably ends badly for at least one of my accessories. I derive some solace (and humor) from knowing I’m not the only one facing these issues: 

In the first frame the face of a person wearing a behind-the-ear hearing aid, face mask, and glasses celebrates that everything is on correctly and they can go out. In the second frame the glasses have fogged up.
Alt text: In the first frame the face of a person wearing a behind-the-ear hearing aid, face mask, and glasses celebrates that everything is on correctly and they can go out. In the second frame the glasses have fogged up.

But it is a pyrrhic sort of consolation. Inevitably I find that the effort of trying to navigate a masked world becomes too laborious, leading to a temptation to disengage and isolate. I want the world to beat COVID-19; I also want to not be cut off from the world. On the worst days it seems neither is possible.

Many of us are struggling to come up with solutions for this conundrum wrapped in a mask. Suggestions of relying on pen and paper or speech-to-text apps are helpful for short interactions, but I see friends starting to cautiously socialize in masks, an activity I feel cut out of. While I know that there is likely not a one-size solution for all of us deaf/HoH, I would love to collect suggestions on how to be a part of the masked world.

I leave you with some parting words from Sara Nović to hearing people:

“The burden of communication has never been solely on deaf people. The pandemic has simply unmasked the fact that we usually do most of the work for you. Now that we physically can’t, we need you to do your part.”

6 thoughts on “Navigating a masked world when you are deaf/HoH

  1. Love the cartoon. All it needs is the next iteration where the person tries to look “put together” and adds earrings to the mix! I’ve had to remove mask, hearing aid and earring to untangle them.
    On a more serious note, has anyone found a good clear mask? And how do they not fog up? My employer says clear plastic face shields don’t meet their mask policy.

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    1. I know! I’ve had better luck with small hoop earrings than with stud earrings and masks. Haven’t tried any face masks with windows yet… haven’t been able to get over the hump that I need the rest of the world to wear them rather than me.

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  2. Thank you so very much for sharing your struggles! I usually feel overwhelmed, and avoid even going anywhere unless I have someone with me to help. But, that is not always a solution.
    The sense of loneliness can get to me, and when I realize that I’m beginning to feel that way, I try self-talk to encourage myself to wipe my tears and keep moving forward.
    Only at a pharmacy or doctors office will people quickly remove their mask for me to read lips.

    I have found that using a mask with straps behind my head a much easier than the ones behind the ears.
    And so far, using the sleeve of an old t-shirt has been the most comfortable.

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  3. Thank you for sharing yours! Yes, I have found doctors to be understanding and willing to remove masks briefly to help with lip reading. I need to try more masks designs. Wearing a buff (that goes around your neck) as a mask has seemed less “dangerous” for all my devices, but I have trouble getting it to stay up.

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  4. I feel you. I just blogged about this one. I respect the need for mask as it helps prevent the spread of the virus, but I feel like there’s also nothing done about people who are like us. It makes going out a struggle.

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