The other side of the mask

Since the pandemic, NIU doctoral student Thomas Asper has been wearing a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

NIU doctoral student Thomas Asper

The mask – a safeguard for most – has proven to be an obstacle for Asper, who was born with a hearing loss.

“Masks make it much harder to communicate with people.” said Asper, who has worn hearing aids since age 3. “While hearing aids help treat the hearing loss, I still have my struggles with speech understanding and communication.”

He’s not alone.

Designed to be a barrier for germs, masks are also a barrier for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, about 48 million people in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss.

Masks hide the lips and half the face, which makes language harder to understand and speech reading impossible.

“Sometimes I limit the amount of communication when at a doctor’s office or grocery store,” Asper said. “I also avoid other situations where there are lots of background noise or people are wearing additional personal protective equipment (PPE) because it’s difficult to understand what is being said.”

Audiology Clinical Coordinator and Clinical Assistant Professor Danica Billingsly

Danica Billingsly, clinical assistant professor and Audiology Clinical Coordinator at Northern Illinois University, said living in COVID-19 times poses significant challenges for the community of people with hearing loss.

“The tools fall short in terms of technology and techniques,” Billingsly said.

When it comes to technology, amplification devices are programmed by audiologists to provide help with the sounds that individuals are missing, but can only amplify what they can pick up.

“This means when speech is filtered through a mask, sounds can be distorted and have reduced clarity,” Billingsly said. “At a distance of greater than six feet (physical distancing) or with the addition of a plexiglass shield, there are significant limitations.”

Some hearing aids now have “mask-mode” which increases high frequency gains to compensate for the effects of high frequency reduction caused by the speakers’ mask. However, techniques used for effective communication are also reduced because of a mask.

“Visual observations are a large part of the conversational repertoire,” Billingsly said. “Visual cues from the eyes, forehead, cheeks and mouth can make up more than 15 percent of our speech understanding.”

King Chung, professor of Audiology at Northern Illinois University, said there are strategies that can be used when communicating with someone who has a hearing loss.

“Wear clear masks when possible,” Chung said. “Draw the individual’s attention before speaking and speak clearly and slowly without shouting.”

Chung said in an online learning environment, students can use Bluetooth to directly stream from the computer to their hearing aids which reduces the background noise in their listening environments.

And educators can do their part to optimize learning conditions when teaching online courses.

“If you are using Zoom or Teams, the instructor’s face needs to be well lit to provide the best condition for speech reading,” Chung said. “Reduce all background noise possible and make sure the lectures are captioned.”

Billingsly agreed.

“Having students see your face (without a mask) at a camera-close distance and hear your voice through a lapel or boom mic is important,” Billingsly said. “With equity and justice on our minds, I encourage readers to include universal accessibility for language access in their teaching and planning choices.”

Go to NIU Center for Teaching and Learning to learn more.

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