Tag Archives: deaf communication

Navigating a masked world when you are deaf/HoH


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.”

Understanding unfamiliar accents


I wrote this post on an airplane coming back from an international conference I attended in Thailand. Because of the distance involved, participation at this meeting was pretty light on scientists from North and South America, but had a lot of participants from Europe (primarily the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Belgium) and Asia (primarily Thailand, China, Japan, Taiwan, but several other countries too). It was a wonderful conference: great venue, warm hosts, cutting-edge talks, great food, new people to meet, and some fun sightseeing thrown in. It also brought with it the usual challenges of trying to understand talks and poster presentations and network with important scientists in noisy settings. But this conference also brought home a specific problem that has stymied me throughout my career: understanding unfamiliar accents.

Deaf/HoH academics who depend on oral communication will likely be familiar with the problem that, even in an optimal hearing environment, we better understand those who speak like we do. Unfamiliar or “foreign” is relative, of course. I speak English and Spanish, but, due to the particularities of my upbringing, my best shot at hearing/understanding Spanish is with people who speak Colombian Spanish, or even more, the version of Colombian Spanish spoken in and around Bogotá (indeed, that is the accent I speak with – immediately recognizable to most Latin Americans). My Argentinean and Mexican friends can attest to how obnoxious I can be asking them to repeat themselves. Likewise, for English, I fare best with a northern Midwestern US type of English; Australian, British, Indian and many other accents will leave me floundering. I imagine that the same is true for other deaf/HoH academics, but with different versions of their language they are most used to.

Scholarly research, of course, is a global venture, and it is wonderful that many luminaries in my field hail from around the world. I’m already incredibly lucky that most professional communication is conducted in English, a language I happen to know. But, while hearing people can be quite understanding of my communication difficulties in suboptimal environments, it seems cruel (and professionally unwise) to tell colleagues that I can’t ‘hear’ them because of their accents—especially because many such colleagues have worked hard to acquire their English skills, thus going the extra mile to ensure communication. Because of globalism, the problem with understanding unfamiliar accents goes beyond conferences and professional networking. Many of my undergraduate and graduate students are also from various international locations. I am heartbroken every time I feel that my difficulty understanding my students negatively affects my ability to mentor them.

I have not found ideal strategies to deal with the challenges of unfamiliar accents. Every accent becomes a little more familiar with constant exposure, so I do understand my graduate students (with whom I communicate almost daily) better as time goes by. But it never stops being a challenge, and I sometimes have to resort to written communication in our one-on-one meetings. Since the undergraduates I teach change each semester, I don’t have similar opportunities to become familiar with their accents. For conferences and professional networking, I imagine that real-time captioning would be the ideal solution; but such a resource is not available at all conferences (though it should be!) and is generally not an option for networking. I’ve been excited by the recent advances in speech recognition software, such as that demonstrated by Google Slides, and wonder both if the technology can accommodate a range of accents and, if so, if it could ever become a portable “translator” for deaf/HoH individuals (I know some portable translator apps exist, but haven’t tried them and don’t know the scope of their utility; perhaps some readers can share their experiences?). I’m also curious whether unfamiliar accents are ever a challenge for deaf/HoH academics who rely on sign language interpreters. What other strategies have deaf/HoH academics employed to help navigate the challenge of unfamiliar accents in a professional setting?